Is an ‘Honest Belief’ of FMLA Misuse Enough for Termination?

Q.  Can I discharge an employee if I believe that he or she is misusing FMLA?

A.  According to a recent Third Circuit opinion, an employer’s honest belief that its employee misused FMLA leave is sufficient to defeat an FMLA retaliation claim, even if the employer was mistaken.

In Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, 847 F.3d 144 (3rd Cir. 2017), the company granted the employee intermittent FMLA leave for flare-ups as a result of hip replacement surgery.  On February 14, 2013, Capps took intermittent leave. That evening, he went to a pub and became severely intoxicated. On his way home, Capps was arrested for driving while intoxicated and spent the night in jail. He was scheduled to work the next afternoon, but called out again. Approximately six months later, Capps pled guilty to the DWI charge and served 72 hours in jail immediately following the guilty plea hearing.

The company’s HR manager learned about Capps’s arrest and conviction when he read about it in a local newspaper. The company then learned that the date of Capps’s arrest and subsequent court dates coincided with dates when he had taken intermittent FMLA leave. The plaintiff was terminated for violating company policy and sued, claiming that the company discriminated against him by terminating his employment in retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The lower court granted summary judgment on the ground that the company acted on an honest belief that Capps had misused his FMLA leave.

On appeal, the Third Circuit affirmed. Significantly, the court concluded that the company met its burden of demonstrating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the plaintiff’s discharge — the fact that Capps was terminated for misusing FMLA leave in violation of company policy. The court concluded that it is enough if the employer provides evidence that the reason for the adverse employment action was an honest belief that the employee was misusing FMLA leave, regardless of whether that belief turned out to be true.

Although the “honest belief” defense provides support for employers to take action based on a sincere belief that an employee misused FMLA leave, employers are cautioned to be careful in invoking this defense. Before terminating an employee for misusing FMLA leave, be sure to have objective evidence of misconduct. It is likely in most cases that it will be a jury question whether the employer’s belief was, in fact, truly honest.

— Tracey E. Diamond

When is Enough, Enough? Limiting Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA

Q: How long does an employer have to accommodate an employee’s disability in the form of a leave of absence?

A: The law in most jurisdictions is unclear. In fact, in most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, there is no bright line rule as to the length of leave time that is reasonable under the ADA.  Typically courts look at the surrounding circumstances to determine whether the amount of time off is a “reasonable accommodation” and have held that leaves longer than three months were required in some circumstances as a reasonable accommodation.

Given this lack of certainty, employers are left with the daunting task of determining how much leave is “reasonable,” thus forcing many employers to typically extend leaves beyond what they may believe is proper.  To add to the uncertainty, the EEOC, which is the employee’s first pit stop in bringing an ADA claim, has taken the position that a two-to-three month leave, or longer may be reasonable.  Moreover, state laws protecting disabled individuals, such, for example, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, may provide for even greater protections to the employee.

A recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case, however, has provided some concrete direction, at least to employers with employees located in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Indiana, regarding the amount of leave required as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In that case, the Court held that a multi-month leave likely was not required as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), the employee brought a lawsuit after the employer terminated his employment rather than give him two to three months of additional leave to recuperate from back surgery after he had used up his Family and Medical Leave Act allotment.  The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, stated that the ADA is “not a medical leave entitlement” and specifically held that “a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”  In particular, the Court held that a such a multi-month leave cannot be a reasonable accommodation because a reasonable accommodation allows a disabled employee to work and perform the essential functions of the position, which the employee in this case could not do, thus disqualifying him from the protections of the ADA.  The Court noted however, that a short leave of absence—say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be a reasonable accommodation.  Although the Severson case provides support for the position that extended, multi-month leaves of absence may not be required under the ADA, employers should not take it as a green light to reject all requests for a leave of absence under the ADA.

The Severson case is binding law only in the Seventh Circuit.  It remains to be seen whether other courts will follow the Seventh Circuit’s lead in limiting the amount of leave that is considered to be “reasonable.” Until that occurs, however, employers should tread lightly when making these decisions and consider all of the risks and benefits associated with rejecting a leave request.

Kali T. Wellington-James

Regulating Speech at Work

Q: Can a private employer limit its employees’ speech and political activity in the workplace?

A: Yes, but not speech that is considered part of a “concerted activity.”

Last year, former San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick, kneeled during the national anthem to bring attention to racial injustice. On Saturday September 23, 2017, in a series of tweets, President Trump demonstrated his displeasure with NFL players who do not stand during the national anthem and called for their termination.  In response to President Trump’s comments, NFL players across the country have been “taking a knee,” locking arms or staying in the locker room during the national anthem.  These demonstrations have generated a lot of discussion about whether a private employer can limit an employee’s speech and political activity in the workplace.

Although the right to freedom of speech is fundamental, it is not absolute. The First Amendment prohibits the government from interfering with an individual’s freedom of speech and religion; however it does not protect private-sector employees.  There is a common misconception that freedom of speech applies to anything and everything an individual has to say, but the First Amendment protections only apply in cases of government interference.

Private-sector employees are typically employed at-will, meaning that their employers can fire them at any time for any reason, with or without cause. There are many exceptions to the employment at-will doctrine, but the First Amendment is not one of them.  As a result, as a general matter, a private sector employer may discipline or even terminate an at-will employee for statements made both inside and outside of the workplace, including statements made on social media posts, blog posts, political opinions, t-shirts, and bumper stickers.  But the employer’s right has limits.  Under federal labor laws, an employer cannot discipline or fire an employee for speech that involves “concerted activities,” such as discussing the terms and conditions of employment, wearing a union shirt, discussing wages, and/or forming a union.

Even though the First Amendment does not apply to private workplaces, employers should be careful when regulating speech. Although an employer may have a right to regulate employee speech on political or social issues, doing so may have a detrimental effect on the workplace.  And, there are times when employers have a duty to regulate employee speech.  For example, employers have a responsibility to maintain a work environment that does not violate laws prohibiting discrimination and harassment, or create a hostile environment.  Employers often have to investigate and act in response to speech in the workplace, and even outside the workplace, that creates or contributes to a hostile work environment from the standpoint of race, sex and other protected characteristics.

Employers should consult a labor and employment attorney if they have any questions about what speech is appropriate to regulate, and for assistance in establishing policies and procedures that govern speech in the workplace.

–Renee Manson

Important Additions to NYC’s Fair Chance Act Limit Employers’ Ability to Perform Background Checks

Q: What do I need to know about the recent additions to New York City’s law about the use of criminal history in employment decisions?

A: While the New York City Fair Chance Act (“FCA”) has been in effect since October 2015, the New York City Commission on Human Rights (“Commission”) recently enacted final rules, which clarify many aspects of the law.  The final rules went into effect on August 5, 2017.

The key provision of the FCA prohibits employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history until after a conditional offer of employment has been made. The final rules explain the meaning of a conditional offer, and clarify the steps an employer must take before revoking a conditional offer or taking an adverse employment action.

A conditional offer is defined as an offer of employment, promotion, or transfer. It is essential for employers and all relevant decision makers to understand that the FCA’s provisions cover far more than just an initial offer of employment – they also cover promotions and transfers.  The FCA provides that a conditional offer can only be revoked based on one of the following:

  • The results of a criminal background check (in which case the “Fair Chance Process” must be followed); or
  • The results of a medical exam, as permitted by the American with Disabilities Act; or

Other material information the employer could not have reasonably known before making the conditional offer if, based on the material information, the employer would not have made the offer.If an employer wishes to rescind a conditional offer based on a criminal background check, the employer must follow the “Fair Chance Process,” which is described in section 8-107(11-a) of the New York City Administrative Code. This includes providing the applicant with a copy of the background check report and an analysis of the factors that went into the decision (the list of acceptable factors is in Article 23-A of the New York State Correction Law), and allowing the applicant to address the criminal history at issue before the offer is rescinded. A sample notice approved by the Commission is available here:

http://www1.nyc.gov/assets/cchr/downloads/pdf/FairChance_Form23-A_distributed.pdf.

The final rules also added a number of per se violations. Engaging in such action is considered a violation regardless of whether the employer takes an adverse action against an employee. Fines for per se violations range from $500 to $10,000, depending on the facts and whether the employer has previous FCA violations. Per se violations include making any inquiry or statement about an applicant’s criminal history before a conditional offer is made, and using applications that require applicants to consent to a background check and/or provide information about criminal history. The use of such applications is a violation even if the application contains a disclaimer that states New York City applicants should not answer certain questions. This prohibition is quite unusual and runs counter to many employers’ practices of using nationwide or multi-state employment applications.To ensure FCA compliance, employers should review their existing policies and practices, and ensure key personnel are up to date with the FCA requirements. Employers should consult a labor and employment law attorney with any questions.

— Jessica Rothenberg