So many of my clients are dealing with Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) abuse by various bad apple employees. I really feel their frustration because, as many of you know, it is really challenging to address FMLA abuse effectively given the law’s broad protections for employees. So it’s nice when, every once in a while, a lying employee gets her comeuppance – as happened in Williams-Grant v. Wisconsin Bell, Inc.
The employee had multiple FMLA-covered health conditions, which sometimes affected her ability to sit for long periods. Because of her sedentary job, she was approved for intermittent FMLA to use when her pain flared up. A supervisor became suspicious of the employee’s leave use when she noticed that the employee would stop calling in sick when her annual FMLA leave allotment was exhausted, and then start calling in again when it was replenished. The supervisor began tracking the employee’s leave, and found that the employee had a pattern of calling out on Saturdays and on days immediately before or after her scheduled days off. The supervisor also noticed that the employee never called in sick on days that she was scheduled to work a shift that paid a premium shift differential.
Based on this pattern, the company hired an investigator to follow the employee on the next two days that she used FMLA leave (each of which were consistent with the pattern of being connected to scheduled days off). On the first day, the investigator observed her going to church (and her supervisor subsequently discovered a blog posting that the employee was taking Saturday classes at the church). On the second day, the investigator observed her riding in a car for more than two hours and visiting someone’s home for more than four hours.
The employee was then interviewed about her activities on those two days. She denied any affiliation with the church and did not disclose that she had been taking classes there. She also claimed to have no recollection of her trip on the other day. The company then called the church, and the pastor confirmed that the employee had been regularly attending a Saturday class. A review of the employee’s FMLA leave showed that she had called out for FMLA on six straight Saturdays, coinciding with the class schedule.
As a result of all of this, the company terminated the employee. The employee then sued for FMLA interference and retaliation (which was pretty darn cheeky of her, given the vast amount of evidence against her). But the federal court found that the termination was legitimate because the company had an “honest suspicion” that she was misusing her leave.
This case gives hope to employers that you can, with the appropriate steps, address FMLA abuse. The company in this case did all the right things – it tracked the employee’s leave, it hired an investigator who observed the employee engaging in activities inconsistent with her supposed limitations, it gave the employee the chance to explain, and it took additional steps to check the employee’s story. Only after all of these steps did the company finally make the (reasonable) decision to terminate. Kudos to the company!