FMLA violation: Just a pretext?

by on January 14, 2010 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Supervisor Greg Pugh didn’t mince his words: “Bill, you falsified an FMLA claim. You said you were at home the other day when you reported your absence, but we called your home and you weren’t there. FMLA violation is a fireable offense.”

“Look, I took my kids to lunch,” said Bill Jordan. “Two days ago my 16-month-old son was seriously injured and my wife had to be with him at the hospital. We had no one else to care for my other kids, so I requested FMLA leave to do so. That is not an FMLA violation: Isn’t that what the FMLA is for?”

“No. FMLA leave is for taking care of sick kids, not healthy ones,” replied Greg. “You were needed here at the plant and you let us down. You took leave that’s not valid and you violated our honesty policy. We’re letting you go.”

“You’re using the honesty policy as an excuse to get rid of me,” Bill said. “That’s retaliation and I’ll be seeing you in court.”

Bill sued his company. Did he win?

The decision

Yes. Bill won his lawsuit against his employer.

Other courts have ruled differently on the question of whether caring for healthy children is an FMLA violation. The circumstances have differed in each case. While this may still be a gray area, in this case, the plaintiff made a compelling enough argument.

The court said that a literal reading of the FMLA makes it clear that it was designed to aid families in crisis. The court ruled that should include a case such as this, where an employee’s son was seriously ill and required hospitalization. The care Bill gave his healthy kids was clearly a function of his youngest son’s serious condition.

So, the court ruled, Bill’s leave was not FMLA violation.

A causal connection?

To win his case, Bill had to show a causal connection between his FMLA leave and his termination. While FMLA protects employees, it won’t protect them from getting fired if they would have been fired anyway.

But the court said a jury could reasonably infer that had in other circumstances Greg wouldn’t have fired Bill over an apparent white lie. Greg was angry because he felt Bill was committing an FMLA violation and abusing the system.

Greg was wrong about that, and his action seemed like retaliation. Bill was awarded back pay and reinstatement.

Cite: Briones v. Genuine Parts Co., No. 01-1792., E.D. La. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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