John Prigge told Sears, his employer, that he was absent for two days to receive radiation treatment for prostate cancer. In reality, Prigge suffered from bipolar disorder, which had been diagnosed several years earlier. Prigge was subsequenlty absent for seven days during which he was admitted to a medical clinic suffering from depression. On this occasion, Prigge advised Sears that his absence was due to incapacity and treatment for bipolar disorder. He also confessed that his prior absence was not due to prostate cancer, but to bipolar disorder.
Sears demanded that Prigge provide medical documentation substantiating his need for leave due to prostate cancer and bipolar disorder. Prigge provided medical documentation substantiating his need for leave due to bipolar disorder. He provided medical certification verifying that he did not suffer from prostate cancer. Sears fired for failure to substantiate his need for leave with medical documentation due to prostate cancer, and for lying about his need for prostate cancer.
The Third Circuit agreed with Sears. It found, essentially, that Sears had the right to terminate Prigge for lying about his need for leave, and because he failed to substantiate that need with supporting medical documentation.
Comment: However awkward or embarrassing, employees need to tell their employers the real reason for their need for FMLA leave. Courts have not allowed employees to tell their employer a false reason for the need for leave. In addition to being truthful, had Prigge told Sears the real reason for the prior leave it would have likely been covered by the FMLA. Courts have not excused employees from telling their employer the real reason for their need leave out of embarrassment or fear that the reason will be fodder for office gossip. Nor have they looked past the false reason to find FMLA coverage based on the real reason for the leave. Courts have consistently found that employers are entitled to the real reason animating the need for leave.
Prigge v. Sears Holding Corp., No. 10-3397 (3d Cir. June 23, 2011).