Human Resources News & Insights

FMLA abuse: A lesson in standing up to it

Handling intermittent FMLA leave can be intimidating. Here’s a case that shows it pays to act decisively when you suspect the employee-centric regs are being abused.  

The story revolves around Mingyi Rowe, a flight attendant for United Airlines. She and her husband — also a United flight attendant — live in Colorado, but Mingyi’s parents and other relatives live in Taiwan.

Rowe suffered from migraine headaches and had used intermittent FMLA leave for several years — more specifically, on 78 different occasions between 2007 and 2011. All her absences were approved by United.

United allows employees to fly for free or at a reduced cost.

Rowe and her husband planned a multi-week trip to visit her family in Taiwan. United approved their vacation from March 2 through March 27, 2011.

In January and February of that year, the couple searched on United’s internal computer system to determine which flights were likely to have seats available. But they were looking for flights leaving Feb. 22 to Feb. 25 — as was later revealed through a search of the United website.

Ah, the old ‘sick uncle’ trick

Later, Rowe testified that she had received a call from her family in Taipei on the evening of Feb. 23, saying that an uncle had been taken to the hospital and was close to death. Rowe and her husband flew out of Denver for Taiwan Feb. 24.

There was another small problem: Mingyi was scheduled work a three-day standby shift beginning Feb. 27. But she said she developed a migraine on the flight to Taiwan, and called in sick Feb. 27 under pre-approved FMLA leave.

Later, when her supervisors questioned her about the absence, Mingyi said she had originally planned to return for her shift, taking a flight Feb. 26 — less than 12 hours after arriving in Taipei. Unfortunately, she hadn’t bothered to put herself on the standby list for the Feb. 26 flight.

United terminated Rowe on grounds that she had been dishonest, “falsely claim[ing] illness as the reason for her absence from work.”

An ‘honest belief’

Rowe sued, claiming she’d been fired in violation of the FMLA and the ADA.

The judge was not impressed. The undisputed evidence, the court said, showed that Rowe was discharged because [her bosses] did not believe her claim that she planned to return to Denver for her Feb. 27 shift when she left for Taipei on Feb. 24.

That disbelief was bolstered by the facts:

  • The flight Rowe said she intended to take out of Taipei on February 26 would have required her to leave Taipei less than 12 hours after she arrived
  • Rowe and her husband performed multiple computer searches for flights to and from Taipei for several weeks prior to their departure and up until the day they left, but neither she nor her husband ever searched for flights that would have returned Rowe to Denver for her three-day shift, and
  • Rowe never sought to place herself on a flight “standby” list for a flight that would have returned her to Denver for her shift.

In addition, the judge said it was not the court’s role to determine whether the employer’s “proffered reasons [for terminating an employee] were wise, fair[,] or correct, but whether [it] honestly believed those reasons and acted in good faith upon those beliefs.”

And United clearly believed in good faith that Rowe was being dishonest in her use of her migraines to dodge coming in to work, the court said.

Case dismissed.

Cite: Rowe v. United Airlines, Inc.

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Comments

  1. Most FMLA abuse is far more subtle, and if the employee is clever, you will never be presented with a cut-and-dried case like the above. The closest I ever got was an employee who developed fibromyalgia that only flared up on Fridays.

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