Honest Belief Shields Employer from FMLA Claim

 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that and employer who fired an employee with a back condition three weeks after he returned from medical leave is not liable for retaliation under the Family and Medical Leave Act due to its “honest belief” that the employee committed disability fraud while on leave. Seeger v. Cincinnati Bell Tel. Co. (6th Cir. 2012).

Tom Seeger worked as a network technician for Cincinnati Bell Telephone Co. In 2007, CBT placed Seeger on FMLA leave due to two herniated lumbar discs. Seeger provided medical certification of this and told CBT that he experienced “excruciating pain,” an inability to sit, stand, or walk for long periods of time, and that his doctor would not clear him for restricted (light duty) work.

While on leave, Seeger attended Oktoberfest for about ninety minutes. He admittedly walked a total of 10 blocks to and from the festival and consumed one or two beers. While there, Seeger had separate chance encounters with several co-workers. Although some believed Seeger had no difficulty walking, at least one observed that he seemed to be in pain. One of these co-workers later reported this meeting to CBT. 

Approximately two months after his leave began, Seeger resumed full-time work. Around this same time, CBT began an investigation into Seeger’s attendance at Oktoberfest. CBT reviewed Seeger’s medical records, disability file, and employment history. Based on perceived inconsistencies with Seeger’s reported medical condition and his behavior at Oktoberfest, CBT met with Seeger. 

Seeger defended his appearance at Oktoberfest and his inability to perform any light duty assignments. Based on its investigation, CBT concluded Seeger had “over reported” his symptoms to avoid part time light-duty work as required by CBT’s paid-leave policy and terminated Seeger’s employment. 

Seeger sued alleging age discrimination and FMLA retaliation. Focusing on the FMLA claim, the Sixth Circuit determined that Seeger established causation by temporal proximity between his exercise of FMLA rights and his termination. The court concluded, however, that CBT was not liable because Seeger did not show that CBT’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for firing him—an “honest belief” that he committed fraud—was a pretext.
The “honest belief” rule requires the employer to make a “reasonably informed and considered decision” based on “particularized facts” before deciding to terminate the employee. The court said, “[a]s long as the employer held an honest belief in its proffered reason, ‘the employee cannot establish pretext even if the employer’s reason is ultimately found to be mistaken, foolish, trivial, or baseless.’” The court concluded, “All in all, the record reflects that CBT made a reasonably informed and considered decision before terminating Seeger. That Seeger or the court might have come to a different conclusion if they had conducted the investigation is immaterial.”