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