An employer with a reasonable belief that its employee was abusing her Family and Medical Leave Act leave because, it concluded, she was dishonest when she was confronted with questions about her Facebook postings of vacation pictures taken while on FMLA leave is entitled to terminate the employee, a federal district court judge has ruled. Lineberry v. Detroit Medical Center et al., No. 11-13752 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 5, 2013). The Court granted summary judgment to the employer, dismissing the employee’s suit accusing the hospital of interfering with her FMLA rights and retaliating against her for taking legally protected leave.

Background

Carol Lineberry was hired by Detroit Medical Center (“DMC”) in March 2009 as a Student Nurse Associate. In September 2009, Lineberry was promoted to full-time Registered Nurse, working 12-hour shifts. On January 27, 2011, she injured herself while moving stretchers as part of her job duties. Lineberry was treated by her physician (also employed by DMC), who told her not to return to work. DMC approved FMLA leave for Lineberry from January 27, 2011, through April 27, 2011. 

While on FMLA leave, Lineberry took a planned, prepaid trip to Mexico. Her physician provided an affidavit that the trip was not as physically demanding for her as performing her work duties and would not conflict with her recovery. During her Mexican vacation and FMLA leave, Lineberry posted numerous pictures on her Facebook page. These showed her engaging in and participating in such activities as riding a motorcycle and holding bottles of beer. She also posted other photographs that showed her visiting a big-box home improvement store, holding her grandchildren, and taking online classes. 

Many of Lineberry’s co-workers saw the Facebook postings and complained to her supervisor, Denise Richards. Richards exchanged e-mails with Lineberry regarding the Mexican trip, her Facebook postings, and other activities. Lineberry told Richards that she had used a wheelchair during her travel at the airports. Subsequent to this communication, Richards on March 15, 2011, reported to DMC’s Loss Time Management Department that she believed Lineberry could have returned to work and was misusing her FMLA leave. Lineberry’s physician then released Lineberry to return to work on April 13, 2011, two weeks earlier than the date originally approved. 

DMC’s policy requires an investigative meeting for any hourly employee who could face termination and Lineberry was subsequently scheduled for a disciplinary meeting with members of management regarding Richards’s report. During the April 19 meeting, Lineberry initially reiterated her claim that she had used wheelchairs in all airports on her Mexico trip. However, when reminded that airports have cameras and showed her Facebook postings from her Mexican trip, she admitted she had lied to her supervisor and in the meeting about using wheelchairs. 

On April 25, 2011, DMC terminated Lineberry’s employment for dishonesty and falsifying or omitting information, either verbally or in written format (including electronically), on DMC records. 

FMLA Lawsuit

Lineberry sued, alleging the hospital interfered with her FMLA rights, denied her reinstatement to her position, and retaliated against her for taking leave. The District Court found that DMC was aware of Lineberry’s dishonesty at the time she was terminated and had the right to terminate her for her dishonesty. 

Court’s Reasoning

The District Court found that the decision to terminate Lineberry’s employment was justified after she admitted to lying about the use of a wheelchair at the airport during the Mexican vacation she took while on FMLA leave. The Court relied upon FMLA regulations (29 C.F.R. § 825.216(a)) providing:

An employee has no greater right to reinstatement or to other benefits and conditions of employment than if the employee had been continuously employed during the FMLA leave period.

The Court interpreted this to mean DMC had an obligation to treat Lineberry the same regardless of whether she took FMLA leave or not. Likewise, the Court found that it was not a violation of the FMLA or Department of Labor regulations “if the employer has a legitimate reason unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights for engaging in the challenged conduct.” Edgar v. JAC Products, Inc., 443 F. 3d 501, 507 (6th Cir. 2006). Here, DMC terminated Lineberry’s employment for violation of its policy against dishonesty.

The Court further relied upon the “honest belief” doctrine, which allows an employer who honestly believes, based upon particularized facts, that an employee lied and misused her FMLA leave and disciplines/terminates the employee based upon such belief. Here, the Court found that Lineberry’s conduct, including her Facebook postings and her dishonesty regarding the use of a wheelchair, were particularized facts that prompted DMC to reasonably believe she had misused her FMLA leave. 

Lineberry is an example of an employer lawfully discharging an employee where it becomes apparent the employee has been dishonest as to the basis of her the need for leave. Employers should consider consulting with experienced employment counsel before disciplining or terminating an employee who has taken FMLA leave.