An employer's reasonably informed decision to terminate an employee where the employer's internal investigation concluded that the employee had falsely reported to his immediate supervisor that his absences were approved for FMLA leave defeated the employee's assertion that the employer willfully violated the FMLA when it terminated the employee.
Price was a bargaining unit employee of the defendant. He was entitled to 480 hours FMLA leave each calendar year. Company policy required that he inform both his immediate supervisor and the Leave Administrator to report his absences, including FMLA absences. Company policy also provided that an employee who accumulated nine or more non-FMLA absences would be terminated. Defendant became aware of a discrepancy between the number of absences Price reported to his immediate supervisor and the number of absences reported to the Company Leave Administrator. An internal investigation revealed that Price had failed to report 101.8 of 530.9 hours of absences he incurred during 2002. As a result, the hours were never deducted from the Plaintiff's FMLA leave balance. The investigation also concluded that Plaintiff had exhausted his FMLA leave by the end of June 2002, and the the subsequent unprotected absences warranted his termination under Company policy. The Company subsequently terminated Price.
Price filed suit three years after his termination alleging violations of the FMLA. The Company moved for summary judgment arguing that the suit was untimely. The FMLA requires that a civil suit within two years of the alleged violation. The FMLA permits civil suit up to three years where the alleged violation by the employer was willful. In the Eighth Circuit, to establish a "willful" violation of the FMLA, a plaintiff must show that the employer knew or showed reckless disregard for the matter of whether its conduct was prohibited by the statute.
The court in Price v. GKN Aerospace North America, Inc., No. 4:05CV01147 ERW (E.D.Mo. Oct. 20, 2006) found that Price had failed to establish that the employer knew or showed reckless disregard of the employee's FMLA rights before it decided to terminate him. The court concluded that the employer's decision was reasonably informed based on the internal investigation it conducted that found that Price had failed to accurately report his FMLA leave in accordance with company policy. The court noted that the employee admitted that he stopped reporting his absences to the Leave Administrator because he felt it was not required by the FMLA as he had informed his immediate supervisor of his need for leave. The court found the employee's claim untimely.
Alternatively, the court also dismissed the employee's claim based on the honest belief defense. The court found that, even if it were mistaken, the Company was entitled to dismissal of the civil suit because it demonstrated that it terminated Plaintiff based on an honestly held belief that Plaintiff was attempting to obtain additional leave fraudulently and determined that Plaintiff exceeded the number of permitted unexcused absence under the Defendant's attendance control policy.
Comment: The decision certainly encourages federal employers facing civil suit by employees pursuant to Title I, the CAA, and the PEOAA to conduct a reasonable and prompt investigation of employee misconduct before taking adverse action that could be the basis for the employee to sue the employer for interference with or retaliation for the exercise of FMLA rights. Note that the investigation took less than a day. The employer was notified of the leave discrepancy on July 24, it conducted an investigation, and the employee was terminated the next day. The reasonableness of an investigation, of course, will be driven by the complexity of each factual situation.