If you fire a staffer for allegedly abusing leave and then turn out to be wrong, you can still win in court — if you meet this one requirement.
Tom Seeger, a network technician who worked for the same firm for nearly 30 years, suffered from a herniated lumbar disc and was approved for FMLA leave.
His doctor stated that he could do “no work,” including light duty. That meant, under his company’s policies, that he could receive paid disability leave while out on FMLA.
Four days later, two co-workers ran into a “seemingly unimpaired” Seeger with his wife at Oktoberfest in downtown Cincinnati. One of those colleagues, knowing Seeger was on paid disability leave, alerted HR.
Seeger admitted after the fact to walking 10 blocks and drinking one or two beers at the event.
The company conducted an investigation, including:
- taking sworn statements from the two employees who saw Seeger at Oktoberfest
- reviewing Seeger’s medical records, disability file and employment history
- consulting with the company’s registered nurse and manager of its medical department, and
- asking Seeger and his doctor to submit info relevant to why he was at Oktoberfest.
After reviewing the info, the company suspended Seeger and ultimately fired him for “disability fraud,” stating that he had “over-reported” his symptoms to avoid the part-time light-duty work that the company’s paid-leave policy called for.
Seeger sued, claiming retaliation for taking FMLA leave. He said that his doctor instructed him to take short walks and that he was most comfortable walking or standing — and that the company should be held liable for firing him for doing what his doctor prescribed.
But the court wasn’t having it.
The question, the court said, was not if Seeger actually committed fraud, but if the company “reasonably and honestly” believed that he did.
Based on the thoroughness of its investigation, the court said the company met was protected under the “honest belief rule”:
As long as an employer has an honest belief in its proffered nondiscriminatory reason for discharging an employee, the employee cannot establish that the reason was pretextual simply because it is ultimately shown to be incorrect. An employer has an honest belief in its reason for discharging an employee where the employer reasonably relied on the particularized facts that were before it at the time the decision was made.
Parsing out the ‘honest belief rule’
Know this: The “honest belief rule” will not protect you in every discrimination case.
This company won because it could prove that it believed a worker was abusing leave. Courts will hold firms to a similar high standard if they want to invoke the “honest belief rule.”
So what’s that look like? You’ll likely need two things:
- detailed, thorough documentation, and
Without those two things, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to claim you fired someone for the right reasons.
But if you have them, and you take an adverse employment action that turns out to be wrong, there’s a good chance you’ll be protected.
Cite: Seeger v. Cincinnati Bell Telephone Co. To read the full decision, go here.