In a recent case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that the “honest belief” rule may shield an employer from a retaliation claim under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The greater definition to the “honest belief” rule provided by the Court in that case provides guidance to employers being accused of discrimination or retaliation by an employee who claims that he or she was the victim of an inadequate investigation.

Seeger v. Cincinnati Bell Telephone (CBT) Co., involved a longtime employee who went on FMLA-qualifying paid leave after developing a herniated disc. While on leave, Seeger attended a local festival during which several co-workers observed him walking short distances without noticeable discomfort. An employee reported the incident and HR investigated by:

  • Interviewing employee-witnesses and collecting their formal statements about the event;
  • Examining the employee’s medical records with a nurse; and
  • Providing the employee with an opportunity to produce evidence to the contrary.

HR determined that Seeger was exaggerating the severity of his injury to avoid light-duty work and collect paid leave. As a result, CBT terminated him for disability fraud. Seeger brought suit claiming retaliation in violation of the FMLA.

The Court rejected Seeger’s claims, citing to the “honest belief” rule, which protects employers from FMLA liability and other discrimination claims when they have a reasonable, honest belief that adverse employment action was justified.  The Court held that “[t]he determinative question is not whether Seeger actually committed fraud, but whether CBT reasonably and honestly believed that he did.”  After examining the thoroughness of the investigation, the Court found that CBT’s process was satisfactory, concluding that “CBT made a reasonably informed and considered decision before terminating Seeger.”

Employers should not interpret this case as a blank check to merely conduct a superficial investigation to justify an adverse employment action. But the Court’s focus on the sufficiency of the process, rather than whether a jury could have looked at the same evidence and reached a different conclusion, provides shelter to employers who conduct reasonable investigations, including employee interviews, record reviews, and a response for an employee to respond, prior to making employment decisions.