The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the termination of an employee with a shoulder condition, finding that the employer’s belief that he was abusing his leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act was reasonable, given that he took such leave next to PTO days or weekends and golfed during such leave.
In LaBelle v. Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc., the employee developed a shoulder condition, and provided an FMLA certification from a doctor stating that he would need to miss work during flare-ups of his condition, which could occur once a month for a three-day period. Because the employee repeatedly took his FMLA days next to PTO days or weekends, the employer became suspicious and twice hired a private investigator to follow him. Each time, the PI recorded the employee playing golf without any indication of pain. At a disciplinary hearing, the employee contended that his shoulders hurt all the time and he took FMLA leave next to weekends to give him more time to rest from the work creating the pain. He also argued that he could golf because “80 percent of your swing is legs and core.”
The court found, however, that the employee’s use of leave was not consistent with his FMLA certification for flare-ups, and if he had needed FMLA in order to rest over a long weekend, he should have requested leave for that purpose. Thus, the employer had “an honest belief” that the employee had abused his leave, and its decision to terminate him did not violate the FMLA.
While this case is a win for employers, they should be cautious when addressing issues of potential FMLA abuse or fraud based on an employee’s activities during FMLA. It is necessary to be thoughtful regarding the limitations set forth in the employee’s certification, and whether the employee’s off-duty activities are truly in conflict with those stated limitations. Thus, other courts have found that an employer’s termination of an employee for going to the beach or traveling during FMLA leave was unlawful, as those activities were not inconsistent with the employees’ limitations in those specific situations.