The federal Family Medical Leave Act offers important protections for people who need to take time off from work, either to care for family members or because of their own medical conditions. But a recent appeals court ruling shows employees can lose some of those protections if they aren’t careful.
In the case of Frederick Capps v. Mondelez International, the plaintiff worked as a mixer for the company that makes Oreos and Nutter Butters. Capps had a health condition that caused him to suffer arthritis and severe pain in his hips, pelvis and legs, so he would periodically request time off when his symptoms would flare up. Under the FMLA, Capps was entitled to take leave and, when he was well enough, return to his job with the same salary and benefits he received before.
During one of his leave days in February 2013, Capps went to a local pub where he ate dinner and had several alcoholic beverages. On his way home, he was arrested and charged with drunk driving.
Almost a year later, his employer became aware of the drunk driving charge and, after an investigation, found that Capps had taken FMLA leave on the day of his arrest as well as on days he appeared in court due to the charge.
As a result, his employer came to believe that Capps was misusing his FMLA leave by taking the time off for non-medical reasons. In February 2014, despite offering documentation from his doctor that he was too ill to work during several of the days he took FMLA leave, Capps was fired under a company policy making employee dishonesty grounds for dismissal. “The documentation you produced does not support your claim of FMLA absences,” the company wrote in his termination letter.
Capps filed a claim of retaliatory termination. Under the FMLA, an employee is entitled to both back pay and front pay (pay he will lose in the future as a result of his employer’s actions), if he is fired in retaliation for taking FMLA leave.
The district court rejected Capps’ claim of retaliatory termination, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia agreed, saying that the employer had an “honest belief” that Capps misused his leave, and Capps failed to prove any retaliatory intent on the part of his employer.
The FMLA has benefited millions of American workers by offering them job security if they need time off to deal with illness or to care for an ill family member. But this ruling indicates that if you do take FMLA leave, it’s important to be extremely careful about even appearing to abuse this benefit, and to be meticulous about documenting your justifications for taking leave. If you don’t, you risk losing the important protections the FMLA affords you.