3rd Circuit: Honest Belief Defeats Retaliation Claim

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that an employer’s honest belief that an employee was abusing his Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave was sufficient to defeat the employee’s claim that he was retaliated against for using FMLA. A retaliation claim requires proof of intent and an honest belief, even if it is wrong, shows there was no intent.

The case is Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC.

Frederick Capps challenged the District Court’s Order granting summary judgment in favor of Capps’ former employer, Mondelez Global. Specifically, Capps argued that the District Court erred in granting Mondelez’s summary judgment motion on Capps’ claims that Mondelez: (1) interfered with his rights under the FMLA (2) acted in retaliation to Capps’ proper use of FMLA leave; and (3) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The 3rd Circuit affirmed the District Court’s Order granting summary judgment in favor of Mondelez. In so doing, it held that an employer’s honest belief that its employee was misusing FMLA leave can defeat an FMLA retaliation claim. It also confirmed that, under certain circumstances, a request for intermittent FMLA leave may also constitute a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, but under the circumstances in this particular case, even assuming such a request was made, there was a lack of evidence that Mondelez failed to provide any requested accommodation.

Mondelez has a policy entitled Dishonest Acts on the Part of Employees, which is considered a Major Rule. Violations of Major Rules are considered inexcusable offenses that will result in immediate suspension pending investigation, which could lead to termination.

Capps suffers with Avascular Necrosis (AVN), which was described by Aron Guttin, D.O., Capps’ treating physician, as a condition in which there is a loss of blood flow, severely limiting oxygen and nutrient delivery to the bone and tissues, essentially suffocating and causing death of those cells.

Capps was certified for intermittent FMLA leave following hip replacements, and thereafter throughout his tenure at Mondelez, he was continuously recertified approximately every six months for intermittent FMLA leave for his condition until his employment was terminated in 2014.

Capps was scheduled to work on February 14, 2013, but he called Mondelez’s phone system stating that he would be taking FMLA leave because of leg pain. Dr. Guttin signed Capps’ FMLA certification form dated February 14th. That night he was arrested for drunk driving and spent the night in jail.

Capps was scheduled to begin his next shift at 1 pm on February 15th. However, on the 15th, he called Mondelez’s phone system and the FMLA message line indicating that he would be using FMLA leave due to leg pain.

In early 2014, the Human Resources (HR) Manager at Mondelez, became aware of Capps’ DUI conviction and sentence by reading a newspaper article. He noticed that Capps’ arrest date and court dates coincided with days on which Capps had taken FMLA leave.

The HR Manager confronted Capps and his union representative with this information 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.

After a review of documents submitted by Capps he was notified of his termination of employment in a letter that confirmed that Capps’ termination was based on his violation of the Dishonest Acts Policy because he claimed to be out on FMLA-related issues, but was not.

Capps sued and the District Court granted summary judgment on Capps’ FMLA interference claim due to Capps’ inability to show that he was denied a benefit to which he was entitled under the FMLA. The District Court granted summary judgment on Capps’ FMLA retaliation claim because the record evidence showed that Mondelez based its decision to terminate Capps’ employment on an honest belief that Capps misused that leave. The 3rd Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

Even though retaliation claims are a very common type of claim and employers need to avoid retaliation, this case can serve as a reminder that employers can rely on an honest belief in terminating employees for abuse of FMLA.

About John Garner

John Garner has over thirty five years of experience in employee benefits. He specializes in compliance, health care reform, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), and the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). He helps clients with life, health, and disability benefits, cost containment, flexible benefits, and claim consulting.

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