The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows employees to take unpaid leave for medical conditions or to care for a family member. It also prohibits retaliation by employers for taking leave. A federal court recently dismissed a claim for violation of FMLA rights based on evidence that the plaintiff made false statements to her employer regarding her condition during her leave. Lineberry v. Detroit Medical Center, et al, No. 11-13752, slip op. (E.D. Mich., Feb. 5, 2013). The court held that the employer’s termination of the plaintiff was justified based on the plaintiff’s conduct, which violated the employer’s policy and was not consistent with her stated reasons for needing FMLA leave. Before bringing a case for FMLA violations, or any other employment law claim, employment attorneys should carefully review the case that the employer could make against the plaintiff.
The plaintiff, Carol Lineberry, worked as a registered nurse at Detroit Medical Center (DMC), receiving positive performance reviews. She suffered an injury while moving stretchers on January 27, 2011. A doctor employed by DMC recommended that she not return to work. DMC approved her for FMLA from January 27 to April 27, 2011, and paid her $3,636.57 for short-term disability benefits for the period from March 5 to April 16.
The plaintiff had already planned and paid for a vacation to Mexico before her injury. The doctor approved the vacation, scheduled for February 26 to March 2, saying that the trip would not impede her recovery. During and shortly after her vacation, co-workers reported seeing pictures posted to the plaintiff’s Facebook page of her laying on the beach and riding in a boat, as well as pictures of her holding her grandchildren. She also allegedly described various activities on Facebook that seemed inconsistent with her injured state.
After a supervisor confronted her about her vacation activities, the plaintiff claimed in an email on March 7 that she spent much of the time in the airport and going through customs in a wheelchair. The supervisor reported her concerns to her superiors that she believed the plaintiff was misusing her FMLA leave. The plaintiff was summoned to a meeting with DMC executives on April 19, where she admitted that she lied about using wheelchairs on her vacation. The human resources department recommended her termination, and the plaintiff received an official termination notice on April 25, 2011.
The plaintiff filed suit against DMC and several of its executives, alleging a single count of FMLA violations. DMC filed a counterclaim for the short-term benefits it paid her. The court granted DMC’s summary judgment motion, finding that DMC “had the right to fire [the plaintiff] for her dishonesty when [DMC] knew about such dishonesty before terminating her.” Slip op. at 7. The FMLA provides that an employee on approved leave has the same rights as an employee that works continuously during the same time period. The court held that this means an employee on leave is subject to the same disciplinary standards.
The plaintiff’s false statements regarding her vacation violated DMC’s policies, according to the court, and this gave DMC the right to fire her under the “honest belief” doctrine. Id. at 10. This doctrine states that an employer is entitled to summary judgment when it can show that it acted based on an honest belief that an employee misused FMLA leave.
If you need to speak to an employment attorney in New Jersey or New York, contact the Resnick Law Group at 973-781-1204 or 646-867-7997.
More Blog Posts:
Family and Medical Leave Act Provides Protection for New Jersey Workers, but Still Confuses Some, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, November 7, 2011
New Jersey Laws Prohibit Discrimination Based on Family Leave, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, May 27, 2011
New Jersey Employment Law Protects Veterans, The New Jersey Employment Law Firm Blog, May 20, 2011
Photo credit: Cobra12B from morguefile.com.