Suspension for Suspected FMLA Leave Abuse Upheld

By Jennifer L. Long April 4, 2023

Takeaway: A timely, thorough investigation of an honest suspicion of leave abuse can help defend a company from liability under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

​The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claims of an employee who was placed on a 30-day suspension after an investigation by his employer, which had an honest suspicion of leave abuse.

Both the employee, a machine repairperson, and his wife were longtime employees of the same Indiana transmission plant operated by FCA US LLC. In 2017, the couple submitted requests supported by certifications from their health care provider for time off under the FMLA. The husband and wife sought intermittent time off to deal with their health conditions, which included anxiety, depression and back pain for the husband and irritable bowel syndrome for the wife.

Throughout the year, the employer provided both spouses with intermittent time off every time they requested it, and the husband's time off even exceeded the time off certified by his health care provider.

By the end of the year, however, the company's FMLA claims administrator flagged a significant pattern of overlap in the dates the couple took intermittent leave. The couple took 21 days off on the same dates, in addition to 27 days on which their partial-day absences overlapped. The company conducted an investigation, during which the couple couldn't explain why their leave requests overlapped as much as they did, and their limited explanations did not match up to the data about their common absences.

The company concluded that the couple provided false or misleading information about their FMLA time off, and it placed both spouses on disciplinary suspensions. Subsequently, the husband returned to work in his same position, with the same pay and benefits, and continued to take FMLA leave as requested.

A year after his return from disciplinary suspension, the husband sued the company, alleging that his 30-day disciplinary suspension amounted to interference with and retaliation for exercising his right to take intermittent FMLA leave. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the company on both claims, finding that they failed because the undisputed evidence showed the disciplinary suspension was based on the company's honest suspicion of the employee's abuse of FMLA time. The employee appealed to the 7th Circuit, trying to revive his claims.

Under the FMLA, there are two main types of claims: interference and retaliation. To win a FMLA interference claim, employees must show they were denied a right provided for under the FMLA, but they do not have to show that the employer acted with discriminatory intent. On the other hand, a successful retaliation claim must show that the employer intended to discriminate or retaliate against the employee because of the employee's FMLA-protected activity, and that the employee suffered an adverse employment action as a result.

The appeals court found the husband failed to present any proof that the employer's stated reason for his suspension—that he violated the company's rules against providing false or misleading information related to his FMLA leave requests—was dishonest or discriminatory. The court also found it was undisputed that the employer never denied the husband any requested FMLA leave, and that he was returned to his same position, including pay and benefits, after taking FMLA leave.

In addition, the court confirmed that the FMLA does not prevent an employer from imposing discipline on an employee for abusing FMLA time off. The judges determined that an employer is not required to provide conclusive evidence, such as video surveillance, of the employee's FMLA abuse. Rather, the employer must show only that it had an honest suspicion of the false or misleading circumstances. The court found that the employer's investigation evidence met this standard.

The appeals court then concluded that the husband did not produce evidence from which a reasonable jury could infer that the company's stated reason for imposing discipline—his FMLA abuse—was not genuine. It affirmed the district court's decision that dismissed the employee's lawsuit and entered judgment in favor of the company.

Juday v. FCA US LLC, 7th Cir., No. 21-1414 (Jan. 12, 2023).

Jennifer L. Long is an attorney in the Chicago office of Duane Morris.



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