We all know that honesty is the best policy but what about an honest mistake? Can an honest mistake save you from liability in a retaliation lawsuit under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)? Just last month, federal appeals court in Pennsylvania said – Yes.
In Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, the federal 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals noted Fredrick Capps suffered from arthritis in his hips and periodically took FMLA leave. He called out on February 12 and 14 due to leg pain. On the night of February 14, Capps met some friends at a local pub for dinner because his wife was out of town and he did not know how to cook. He had three beers and three shots.
On his drive home, Capps was stopped by the police and arrested for having a blood alcohol reading four times the legal limit. The police released him the next morning, and he called out for his 1 p.m. shift because of leg pain. Capps returned to work on his next scheduled shift.
About a year later, Mondelez, the employer, learned of the incident. The HR department investigated whether any of Capps’ absences occurred during the time of his arrest and subsequent conviction for DUI. The HR department believed that Capps had several FMLA absences that corresponded with his arrest and court proceedings.
After providing Capps with an opportunity to explain himself, Mondelez terminated him for violation of the company’s Dishonest Acts Policy. Capps sued for interference and retaliation in violation of the FMLA, claiming that the company was mistaken about his FMLA absences and court dates coinciding.
The court found that Mondelez had provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for terminating Capps – the company’s honest belief that the employee had misused his FMLA leave and had violated the company’s dishonesty policy. Following several other courts that had looked at the issue, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said that where the adverse employment action was motivated by an honest belief that Capps was misusing FMLA leave, even if the honest belief turns out to be mistaken, the honest belief serves as a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his termination. Because Capps could not prove that his employer’s reason for terminating him was a pretext, his retaliation claim failed.
It is good to be right, but if you cannot be right, at least be honest. It may save the day.