The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) gives eligible employees the right to up to 12 weeks of leave per year, which may be taken intermittently for certain specified reasons, including the care of designated family members with serious health conditions.
The FMLA also prohibits an employer from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of or the attempt to exercise any right given under the FMLA. One of the bases upon which an employer can defeat an FMLA “interference” claim is a showing by the employer that an employee did not, in fact, take leave for a purpose authorized under the FMLA. Naturally, the availability of this defense has prompted some employers to undertake investigations of (some might say “spying on”) employees suspected of abusing the rights afforded by the FMLA.
At least two federal courts of appeals have effectively allowed at least some degree of employee surveillance by holding that in order to defeat an FMLA interference claim based on an employee’s asserted right to reinstatement, an employer need only show that it refused to reinstate the employee based on an “honest suspicion” that the employee was abusing his or her leave. Sometimes the basis for such a suspicion is produced by detective work of the kind engaged in by private investigators.
In one such case, the employer had an honest suspicion that an employee had misused his FMLA leave and, therefore, the employer’s decision to terminate the employee did not interfere with the employee’s right to reinstatement. The employer suspected that based upon the employee’s prior absenteeism, the employee was misusing his FMLA leave, so the employer hired a private investigator to observe the employee on a day for which he had requested FMLA leave to care for his mother. Video surveillance revealed that the employee did not appear to leave his house that day.
When the employer questioned him, the employee could not recall what he had done on that day, but he asserted that he had not misused his FMLA leave. Although the employee later provided supportive documentation from his mother’s nursing home and doctor’s office, the paperwork did not clear the air but, rather, only raised further questions for the employer, as the documents were facially inconsistent and conflicted with the employer’s internal paperwork.
In a second case, an employer was found to have had an honest belief that an employee had committed disability fraud in taking FMLA leave and, therefore, his termination for such fraud was found not to have been a pretext for FMLA retaliation.
It was not disputed that the employee suffered from a herniated disc and sciatica. However, although the employee had been approved for disability leave based upon his having reported excruciating pain and an inability to stand for more than 30 minutes, coworkers saw him at an Oktoberfest festival a few days later without any indication that his movements were painful or restricted. In fact, he was also able to walk 10 blocks and remain at the crowded festival for 90 minutes.
The employer’s investigation included interviews with the coworkers, and the employee was permitted to submit documentation and other evidence in his defense. Still, when the dust settled, the court ruled that the employer had acted within its rights in terminating the employee. Importantly, the decisive question that sealed the employee’s fate was not whether he had actually committed fraud, but whether his employer reasonably and honestly believed that he had.