Can an Honest Belief be a Defense against FMLA Retaliation?

When it comes to retaliation and the motives of an employer, a defense that employment actions were taken based on an “honest belief” of wrongdoing can be successful. It depends on the specific facts of the situation. In a recent case filed in the Third Circuit, the appellate court dealt with this issue in relation to an FMLA retaliation case.

An “honest belief,” even if mistaken, can be a defense

Frederick Capps was employed at Mondelez Global, LLC. Capps suffers from Avascular Necrosis, which is a condition involving a “loss of blood flow, severely limiting oxygen and nutrient delivery to the bone and tissues, essentially suffocating and causing death of those cells.” Consequently, Capps has arthritis in both hips, ultimately requiring double hip replacement surgery. Another side effect of his condition is periodic episodes of severe pain lasting for weeks. As a result, the employer approved intermittent FMLA leave.

Apparent misconduct by Capps leads to adverse employment action

While Capps was out on FMLA leave, he went out for dinner and drinks. While driving home, he was arrested for drunk driving. After he returned to work, his employer had learned about his arrest and guilty plea to DUI. The employer discovered that Capps was out on FMLA leave at the time of his arrest, as well as several other occasions for scheduled court appearances relating to his DUI. Subsequently, Capps was suspended.

Employee’s attempt to justify absences was rejected

Despite the letters Capps submitted from his doctor and his attorney refuting that he was in court on those days, his employer had the honest belief that that he had abused his FMLA leave. Capps was ultimately terminated for violating the company’s “Dishonest Acts Policy.”

Capps filed lawsuit claiming retaliation

After being fired, Capps filed a lawsuit against his employer alleging that he was retaliated against in violation of the FMLA, among other things. The District Court dismissed his case and Capps appealed. The Third Circuit affirmed the dismissal, agreeing with the lower court.

The appellate court agreed that Capps was unable to prove his employer’s retaliatory intent, which was a necessary element of his claim. Instead, the appellate court determined that, based on the evidence, Capps’ employer had an honest belief that Capps had misused his FMLA leave and lied about it.

Court believed employer’s justification

The Court also found that the employer had consistently allowed Capps to take FMLA leave over a 10-year period. He was only disciplined when it was believed that he had used his FMLA for an impermissible reason. Ultimately, the Court concluded that, even

though the company’s belief that Capps violated the policy was mistaken, as long as it was an honest belief, there was no evidence of motive.

If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination or retaliation, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC, either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.

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