Honest belief employee was abusing FMLA leave defeats retaliation claim

Even assuming an employee made out a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation, his employer was properly granted summary judgment because the evidence showed that it fired him based on an honest belief that the employee, who was arrested for a DUI and had court dates coinciding with his intermittent FMLA dates, was misusing FMLA leave. The Third Circuit also affirmed summary judgment against the employee’s FMLA interference claim because there was no evidence he was ever denied benefits to which he was entitled. As for his ADA failure-to-accommodate claim, the appeals court explained that a request for intermittent FMLA leave may constitute an ADA request for accommodation, but here there was no evidence any such request was denied.

The employee, whose job involved operating a mixing machine to make dough, developed arthritis in both hips due to Avascular Necrosis (AVN), a condition in which the loss of blood flow can cause the death of cells. He had hip replacement surgery in 2003 and thereafter was approved for intermittent FMLA leave for pain and flare-ups.

Relevant here, he was approved for intermittent leave during a period from January 24 to July 23, 2013, based on a doctor’s certification that he “required full bedrest during exacerbations.” In February, the employee took FMLA leave on the 11th and 12th, returning on Wednesday the 13th, and then calling out again on the 14th. His message on the employer’s phone line indicated he was absent due to pain.
Arrested for DUI. According to his subsequent deposition testimony, his wife was out of the country that week and he didn’t know how to cook, so he drove to a nearby pub the evening of the 14th to get something to eat. He also had three beers and three shots before attempting to drive home. The employee was arrested for DUI and spent the night in jail. He was scheduled to work Friday afternoon but he called the phone system and left a message stating he would be using FMLA leave due to leg pain. He returned on Monday February 18 and did not report his arrest to anyone, nor was he required to under the employer’s policies. He pled guilty to DUI on August 7 and served 72 hours in jail immediately after the hearing.

Investigated FMLA dates. In early 2014, the employer’s HR manager became aware of the DUI conviction and sentence through a newspaper that was placed in the company mailbox. He asked an HR employee and the plant manager’s assistant to investigate the employee’s attendance record. Reviewing the court docket, it appeared to them that some dates matched days when the employee had taken FMLA leave, including the day of his arrest and the day after.

Fired for dishonesty. The employee was confronted in a meeting at which his union rep was present. He was suspended pending further investigation and he agreed to provide documentation supporting FMLA leave. However, the physician letters he later presented appeared suspicious because they were undated and included legal information about the employee not appearing in court on a particular day because he “waived his right for that appearance.” Ultimately, the employee was terminated by letter dated March 21, 2014, which stated the termination was due to his violation of the employer’s “Dishonest Acts” policy. It further stated that he had claimed to be out for FMLA-related issues but failed to support that claim.

Lawsuit. The employee grieved his termination and the employer offered to reinstate him, but he rejected the offer and filed suit under the FMLA, ADA, and state law. Granting summary judgment for the employer, the district court explained that the FMLA interference claim failed because the employee was not denied a benefit to which he was entitled. The FMLA retaliation claim failed for lack of a causal link between his protected activity and his termination a year later, and because the record showed the employer fired him based on an honest belief that he misused his FMLA leave. The ADA claim failed because the employee never requested an accommodation under the ADA (his FMLA request was not an accommodation request).

Honest belief that employee was dishonest. Affirming, the Third Circuit agreed with the lower court that, even assuming the employee made out a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation, the employer met its burden of showing a legitimate reason for firing him—his misuse of FMLA leave and dishonesty surrounding the leave. The evidence showed the employer had an honest belief that the employee was misusing FMLA leave. Moreover, there was no indication he was ever denied FMLA leave or prohibited from returning to work. To the contrary, he was returned to the same position with the same benefits each time. It was not until the employer learned of the DUI arrest that it began to investigate him. Because there was no evidence of pretext, summary judgment was properly granted.

Not denied FMLA benefits. Summary judgment was also affirmed on the FMLA interference claim because the employee could not show that he was denied a benefit to which he was entitled under the FMLA. Though he claimed his termination amounted to a deprivation of benefits, that argument failed because he could not show FMLA benefits were actually withheld.

Never denied an accommodation. Affirming summary judgment against the ADA claim, the appeals court first explained that requests for intermittent leave may qualify, under certain circumstances, as a request for an accommodation. Nevertheless, the employee’s claim in this case failed. Even assuming he had a disability as defined by the ADA, was a qualified individual, and requested intermittent FMLA leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the record did not suggest that the employer discriminated against him based on a disability or refused to accommodate any such requests.

SOURCE: Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, (CA-3), No. 15-3839, January 30, 2017.

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