On a day when an employee was scheduled for FMLA leave (Family and Medical Leave Act) to care for his mother in a nursing home, the man, instead, allegedly stayed home all day. He was observed, via video surveillance, by a private investigator – hired by the company, hoping to combat excessive employee absenteeism. This ultimately led to his termination, and a lawsuit.
The man had worked for Carrier Corporation, a manufacturer of refrigeration, air conditioning and heating equipment, for over 20 years. He sought intermittent FMLA leave for his mother’s care, and from 2004 to 2007 submitted FMLA certification paperwork on five occasions – all of which was approved by Carrier. In 2006, the company, believing that some workers were abusing FMLA leave at its Indianapolis facility, implemented a new plan for medical-leave requests. This included the Medical Department handling requests, in lieu of HR, as well as a PI conducting surveillance on 35 employees with numerous unexcused absences or suspected of exploiting medical leave.
The man in question was followed on three separate occasions. The first two instances rendered nothing of suspicion, but the third time the investigator stated that the man’s vehicles remained in the driveway all day and the man left his house only once to retrieve mail from the mailbox. Labor relations reps met with the man, who denied that he’d abused FMLA, and he was suspended pending further investigation for violating policy – falsifying company documents.
The employee later provided documentation from the doctor and nursing home to prove that he’d taken his mother to her appointment on that day. Unfortunately, this only intensified Carrier’s skepticism – a sign-out sheet to show that he’d taken his mother out of the nursing also showed that he hadn’t signed her out on other occasions of FMLA leave; he claimed that he was the only one who could drive his mother, but others had signed her out; and though the doctor’s note referenced a 10:00-10:30 am time, he hadn’t signed out his mother from the nursing home until 11:30 am. The man was subsequently fired for the policy violation.
At a grievance hearing, he explained that his brother had picked him up that morning at the backdoor of his home, and he’d been dropped off at his neighbor’s house. But he couldn’t recall the neighbor’s name and blamed the time discrepancy on an inaccurate sign-out sheet. The grievance was denied. He filed suit in state court, which was removed to federal court, and alleged FMLA interference and retaliation. The district court, believing that Carrier had an “honest suspicion” of the worker abusing FMLA leave, granted summary judgment in favor of the company.
Appellate judges concurred. They dismissed the interference claim by noting “facially inconsistent” documentation that conflicted with Carrier’s internal paperwork. The retaliation claim was likewise dismissed – the man’s FMLA requests were never denied and, in fact, additional requests were approved following the surveillance until the investigation was completed. Judges further stated that, if it agreed with the plaintiff’s argument, nearly any employee fired for FMLA-leave abuse would be able to state a claim for retaliation. Accordingly, the appeals court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment.