When the Family and Medical Leave Act became law in 1993, it immediately changed the relationship between managers and employees. It became much harder to discipline employees for attendance, if their absences were even arguably covered by the FMLA. But a recent case demonstrates that if an employee lies about his or her need for FMLA leave, then discharge for the dishonesty is appropriate. See Sharif v. United Airlines, Inc., No. 15-1747 (4th Cir. Oct. 31, 2016).
The Facts: Masoud Sharif, an employee of United Airlines in the U.S., had suffered from a diagnosed anxiety disorder for several years, and he was frequently absent from work due to panic attacks. For many years, United Airlines approved his requests for FMLA leave. In fact, in the two years prior to his discharge, Mr. Sharif took 56 days of approved FMLA leave.
Mr. Sharif and his wife (also a United employee) went on a three-week vacation to South Africa in 2014. He used time-off days for most of the time, but not for two days in the middle of the scheduled absence. He tried to swap shifts for those two days within United’s swap policy. He found someone to cover one shift, but not the other. While still in South Africa on the day that his absence was not covered, he called to request FMLA leave for that shift. (He did not call to request the leave until it was too late to fly back to the U.S. from South Africa, and he had no airline reservation back to the U.S.)
The Sharifs returned to the U.S. in time for Mrs. Sharif’s first scheduled shift after the irvacation. United then noticed that Mr. Sharif had only requested FMLA leave for the one shift he was scheduled to work during his vacation. Mr. Sharif had similarly taken FMLA leave during a planned absence in 2013. Therefore, United decided to investigate.
When United managers questioned him, Mr. Sharif first claimed he was not scheduled to work on the day in question, but he did not explain why he requested FMLA leave for that day. He gave inconsistent and implausible statements about trying to fly home from South Africa, then claimed he suffered a panic attack over his inability to return home, which is why he requested FMLA leave.
United determined that Mr. Sharif had been dishonest in his request for leave and during their investigation. Dishonesty was a violation of the United “Working Together Guidelines.” The airline suspended him without pay. United was prepared to discharge him for fraudulently taking FMLA leave and for making false representations during the investigation. On the recommendation of his union, Mr. Sharif retired, so he would not be terminated.
Mr. Sharif later filed suit alleging the threat of termination constituted retaliation for taking FMLA leave. The district court granted United’s motion for summary judgment, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed. The Fourth Circuit held that termination of employment for abusing FMLA leave and for lying during an investigation into the FMLA abuse is not retaliation under the FMLA.
The Moral: This is another case where an observer wonders what the employee was thinking. Several of Mr. Sharif’s statements were easy to refute based on airline schedules. The whole situation—leaving one day uncovered in the middle of an international vacation, then requesting FMLA leave on that day—would raise the specter of employee dishonesty in any objective mind. Common sense should prevail in a case like this, and fortunately it did.
As the Fourth Circuit held,
“Sharif has failed to create an issue of triable fact that the explanation United Airlines provided for his discharge was a pretext for retaliation for taking FMLA leave. To hold otherwise would disable companies from attaching any sanction or consequence to the fraudulent abuse of a statute designed to enable workers to take leave for legitimate family needs and medical reasons.” [emphasis added]
In its decision, the Fourth Circuit provided guidance for determining whether FMLA retaliation has occurred, when the circumstances surrounding the request for leave or the leave itself triggers an investigation and adverse action. The Fourth Circuit stated that an employer’s retaliatory intent “can be established either by direct evidence of retaliation or through the familiar burden-shifting framework articulated in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 800–06 (1973).”
The well-known McDonnell Douglas analysis requires the employee to establish a prima facie case of retaliation. If the employer then rebuts the prima facie case with a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse action, the employee then has the burden to prove that the proffered explanation is pretextual.
The Fourth Circuit explained that both pretext and employer intent can be demonstrating by considering
“ ‘among other things, the historical background of the . . . decision; [t]he specific sequence of events leading up to the challenged decision; [d]epartures from the normal procedural sequence; and . . . [any] contemporary statements by members of the decisionmaking body.’ See Reno v. Bossier Parish Sch. Bd., 520 U.S. 471, 489 (1997) (quoting Vill. of Arlington Heights v. Metro. Hous. Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 267-68 (1977)).”
The Fourth Circuit went through these factors and found that United’s past acceptance of Mr. Sharif’s FMLA claims, Mr. Sharif’s inconsistent explanations, the timing of his and his wife’s vacations, and the lack of any attempts to make return reservations so he could work the shift, all demonstrated that United did not retaliate.
Mr. Sharif also claimed that he should have received lesser discipline for not working the shift. However, the Fourth Circuit cited the frequently quoted words supporting court decisions in support of employers:
“courts are not ‘a kind of super-personnel department weighing the prudence of employment decisions.’ DeJarnette v. Corning, Inc., 133 F.3d 293, 299 (4th Cir. 1998).”
Because Mr. Sharif’s offense amounted to “misrepresentation and fraud,” the Fourth Circuit found that discharge was appropriate, thus establishing that there are at least some occasions in which an employer can still manage attendance.
Have you ever dealt with suspected FMLA misrepresentations? What was the outcome?