Third Circuit Decides Good Faith Belief of FMLA Abuse Justifies Termination

There are occasions when an employer becomes concerned that an employee on leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA” or “the Act”) is using the leave for purposes not authorized by the Act. That situation was presented in Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, a recently issued opinion from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. There, the Court held that an employer’s good faith belief that an employee was abusing his authorized FMLA leave constituted sufficient grounds on which to terminate the employee. The case provides valuable guidance as to how employers should proceed in such situations.

The Facts
Frederick Capps worked as a dough mixing machine operator for Mondelez Global (“Mondelez”). Because of a blood flow condition, Capps underwent bilateral hip replacement. At times thereafter, he suffered from severe leg pain and was continuously recertified approximately every six months for intermittent FMLA leave for his condition. On the evening of February 14, 2013, Capps was arrested for driving under the influence and spent the night in jail. He had not reported to work that day having called Mondelez’s FMLA message line complaining of leg pain. On August 7, 2013, Capps pled guilty to a DUI charge and spent 72 hours in jail immediately following the guilty plea. The company did not have a policy requiring Capps to report his arrest or conviction. In early 2014, personnel in Mondelez’s Human Resources Department became aware through a newspaper article of Capps’ DUI conviction and sentence. Upon obtaining and reviewing a copy of the docket sheet in Capps’ DUI case, they ascertained that Capps’ arrest date and “court dates” coincided with days on which Capps had taken FMLA leave.

The company’s FMLA policy required employees requesting FMLA leave provide the company with a certification from a healthcare provider and further provided that “the submission of false information to the Company regarding the need for FMLA leave, or the fraudulent use of FMLA leave, may result in discipline, up to and including termination.” Mondelez also had a policy entitled “Dishonest Acts on the Part of Employees” that included the warning: “THE COMPANY WILL NOT TOLERATE DISHONESTY ON THE PART OF ITS EMPLOYEES, WHETHER IT BE COMMITTED AGAINST THE COMPANY, ANOTHER EMPLOYEE, ITS CUSTOMERS, OR OTHERS EITHER DURING OR AFTER WORKING HOURS” and that “ANY EMPLOYEE FOUND GUILTY OF A DISHONEST ACT WOULD BE SUBJECT TO DISMISSAL.”

The HR personnel confronted Capps and his union representative with the results of their investigation at a meeting on February 26, 2014. In response, Capps promised to provide documentation to support his FMLA leave on the days in question, and Capps was suspended pending further investigation. Sporadically over the next two months, Capps provided the company with documentation purportedly justifying his absences, documentation the company considered insufficient. By letter, the company notified Capps that his employment was terminated due to his violation of the company’s Dishonest Acts Policy and because his documentation did not support his claim of FMLA related absences. Thereafter, Capps’ union representative filed a grievance on his behalf. The company offered to reinstate Capps without back pay. Capps rejected the offer and instead filed a lawsuit that included a claim that Mondelez discriminated against him in violation of the FMLA by terminating his employment in retaliation for his use of FMLA leave. The district court granted Mondelez’s motion for summary judgment on that claim, and Capps appealed.

The Third Circuit’s Opinion
The Court of Appeals first explained that FMLA retaliation claims require proof of the employer’s retaliatory intent. Thus, when an employer provides evidence that the reason for the adverse employment action was an honest belief that the employee was misusing FMLA leave, that belief constitutes a legitimate, nondiscriminatory justification for the discharge. In the present case, the Court concluded that Mondelez provided evidence clearly supporting its legitimate, non-discriminatory explanation for why Capps was discharged – its honest belief that Capps misused his FMLA leave and was otherwise dishonest in violation of Mondelez’s policies. The Court noted that, following Capps’ hip replacements, he was continuously recertified for FMLA leave every six months and was never prohibited from returning to work after taking his approved FMLA leave. Nor was there any other indication of any animus on the part of Mondelez related to Capps taking FMLA leave prior to receiving notice of Capps’ arrest and conviction. Although Capps argued that Mondelez was mistaken in its belief that he misused his leave or was otherwise dishonest with regard to his absences, there was no evidence Mondelez did not honestly hold that belief. Thus, the Third Circuit ruled that the district court had properly granted summary judgment on Capps’ FMLA retaliation claim.

Conclusion
Employers should note that Mondelez prevailed on its good faith belief defense to its employee’s FMLA retaliation claim because (1) it had in place policies made known to the workforce that it would not tolerate fraudulent use of FMLA leave or dishonesty in general and that violations of those policies could result in termination, (2) historically in dealing with the employee’s requests for FMLA leave, it had consistently complied with the requirements of the Act, and (3) it attempted to investigate its concerns about possible leave abuse and gave the employee an opportunity to explain his conduct and justify the leave taken. An employer whose practices follow this “roadmap” should feel confident that, if necessary, it will be able to justify a termination or other discipline of an employee for FMLA abuse.

If you have any questions regarding this blog, please feel free to contact any of the attorneys in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.

Richard S. Zackin is a Director in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.
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