Recently, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an employer’s honest belief that an employee misused their rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was sufficient to defeat the employee’s claim for retaliation. This holds true even if it turns out that the employer was mistaken, and that the employee was not misusing their rights under the FMLA. Pennsylvania is within the jurisdiction of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
In Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, the employer, Mondelez, had an FMLA policy in place. The policy made clear that any employee who fraudulently misused FMLA time would be subject to discipline and possible termination. The company also had an additional policy that provided discipline if an employee was found to have engaged in dishonest acts. One of Mondelez’s employees, Frederick Capps, was experiencing bouts of severe pain following a bilateral hip replacement that he underwent in 2003. Mondelez provided him with intermittent leave under the FMLA during these bouts of pain.
One day in 2013, Capps took the day off alleging it was for pain related to his medical condition. Later that evening, he went to a bar and was arrested for a DWI while driving home. Although he was scheduled to work the next day, he called out complaining of pain related to his hip surgery. Capps’s employer learned of his arrest in the newspaper, and discovered that he fraudulently requested FMLA for the day after his arrest and on subsequent court dates; the absences were not related to his medical condition. As a result, his employment was terminated.
Mr. Capps sued his employer for allegedly retaliating against him for taking FMLA leave. The District Court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled in favor of Mondelez Global, LLC on grounds that it acted on an honest belief that Capps had been abusing FMLA leave. Although the Court ultimately found that he had not established a prima facie case of retaliation, it noted that Mondelez had established a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Capps, stating that he violated the company’s Dishonestly Policy. Because the employer acted in good faith, the Court ruled in its favor, concluding that even if the employer’s belief turned out to be untrue, it still would have prevailed because it had established that it acted in good faith.
This is consistent with the Third Circuit Court of Appeals’ rulings in other discrimination claims, such as age-discrimination and Title VII cases, whereby an employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for termination will not be defeated by a plaintiff demonstrating that the belief was ultimately incorrect.
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