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How Far Can an Employer Go to Prove an "Honest Belief"?


In response to most employment discrimination suits, employers are required to prove that the reason they took an action against an employee was not discriminatory. This is often shown by demonstrating an "honest belief" that the employee engaged in some type of wrongdoing that justified termination, demotion, or some other negative employment action. What one employer did to provide proof of an employee's wrongdoing may surprise you. The fact that it didn't work may surprise you even more.

Is an Employee Really Sick on His Sick Day?

John Dandridge, an employee of North America Fuel Systems Remanufacturing, LLC, also owned a separate business dealing in commercial property. His ownership and operation of this side business was not a violation of any company policy enforced by North America Fuel. Dandridge was known to have chronic migraines, which qualified him to take intermittent FMLA leave when he was either incapacitated by the headaches, or was receiving medical treatment for them. Dandridge was scheduled to work from 2:30-10:30 pm on May 23, 2011, but called in sick shortly after 11:00 am, requesting an FMLA day for his migraines. The company, concerned that their employee was abusing his FMLA leave, sent a private investigator to record and surveil him.

Dandridge Was Terminated Based on Video Footage

The video revealed that he went to a convenience store that day, and then to his own business property. Dandridge was shown the video of him exiting a convenience store with a bag and then entering his business property, on the day he called in sick. Dandridge was given the option of resigning immediately, or he would be terminated.

An FMLA Suit Followed

Dandridge filed a lawsuit against his employer, alleging that his FMLA rights had been violated when he was forced to resign based only on the video footage. His employer countered that it had an "honest belief" that Dandridge was engaging in fraud and dishonesty, as evidence by the video, and that this was a legitimate, non-discriminatory or retaliatory reason for terminating his employment.

Of course, Dandridge argued that the video alone was insufficient because his employer made assumptions and jumped to conclusions about what whether he was incapable of working that day. According to Dandridge, his business had been burglarized and he was dealing with that situation, despite having a debilitating migraine.

What Is the "Honest Belief" Defense?

When an employer can prove that its proffered reason for taking an adverse employment action against an employee was based on an "honest belief" that the employee had engaged in misconduct, whether or not that fact turns out to be true, the employer can often avoid liability. The key is showing that the decision-makers made a "reasonably informed and considered decision" before taking the adverse employment action complained of in the lawsuit.

Final Ruling: Quality Evidence Is Key

In Dandridge's case, the court agreed that relying solely on the video, without any further inquiry or investigation, was insufficient to escape liability. As this ruling demonstrates, claiming honest belief is not automatic immunity for employers. They must still be able to prove that their choice was backed by reasonable information.

If you are an employee who believes your FMLA rights were violated, please contact a Birmingham Employment Lawyer at Michel | King , either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880. We would be happy to answer your questions and counsel you on your options.

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