Thursday, February 2, 2017

3d Cir. on FMLA retaliation and the honest belief defense

On Monday, the Third Circuit issued a precedential opinion in Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC. The employee had been certified for intermittent FMLA leave. One day he called off from work, invoking his intermittent FMLA leave... and proceeded to go to the local pub and get hammered.

On the way home, wouldn't you just know it? He gets nabbed for a DUI (.339% BAC!). He spends the night in jail, and then calls off the next day too. Well, the employer had no idea anything strange was afoot, until an HR manager saw the DUI in the newspaper. The employer started to piece together that the arrest date and the employee's other court dates matched dates that he was supposedly using FMLA leave. Suspecting dishonesty, they fired him.

Of course, the employee claims it was all a misunderstanding and that he just so happened to have leg pain on the days of his arrest and hearings. So, an FMLA lawsuit ensued. The Court recognized the employer's "honest belief" (aka "mistaken belief") defense. The Court noted that the employee had been recertified for FMLA for about a decade without incident.
[T]he undisputed evidence indicates that when Oxenford and McAvoy reviewed the criminal court docket related to Capps’ DUI case, the docket reflected that the arrest date and “court dates” appeared to coincide with days on which Capps had taken FMLA leave. Although Capps argues that Mondelez was mistaken in its belief that Capps misused his leave or was otherwise dishonest with regard to the leave taken, there is a lack of evidence indicating that Mondelez did not honestly hold that belief.
So, the Court concluded that the employer was entitled to summary judgment.

Frankly, it's not clear that the employer was even mistaken in this case. The point is that it does not matter if the employer was right or wrong, so long as the employer really believed the non-retaliatory reason for the termination.