A recent federal appeals court decision emphasizes the need for employees to be forthright and honest when exercising their rights to leave under the federal Family & Medical Leave Act. In a much-discussed decision – Jaszczyszyn v. Advantage Health Physician Network – the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed an employee’s claim for interference and retaliation under the FMLA. The employee, Sara Jaszczyszyn (“Jaszczyszyn”) obtained a physician’s opinion assessing a period of disability from September 10 to October 5, 2009. Jaszczyszyn attended a local Pulaski Days celebration on October 3, 2009. Jaszczyszyn posted nine pictures from the celebration on her Facebook page. Jaszczyszyn was Facebook “friends” with several of her co-workers, some of whom became upset with Jaszczyszyn’s behavior.

Jaszczyszyn’s employer believed that the Pulaski Days pictures were inconsistent with the employee’s requests for FMLA leave and two completed Work Release forms, all of which characterized Jaszczyszyn as “completely incapacitated.” When questioned about this inconsistency, Jaszczyszyn did not respond. She was terminated by her employer on October 8, 2009. Jaszczyszyn filed a federal lawsuit alleging that her former employer interfered with her rights under the FMLA and retaliated for the exercise of those rights. The trial court dismissed Jaszczyszyn’s claims and the appeal court affirmed that dismissal.

In affirming the dismissal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals discussed the two broad categories of employee claims under the FMLA: (1) interference, or “entitlement” claims; and (2) retaliation or “discrimination” claims. Jaszczyszyn advanced both. While interference claims do not require an employee-plaintiff to prove an unlawful motive, retaliation claims do. To establish an interference claim, an employee must prove that he or she was entitled to leave under the FMLA, the employer was a covered entity, she gave notice of her intent to take leave and that the defendant deneid FMLA benefits or interfered with FMLA rights to which she was entitled. However, employers can avoid liability for interference claims if it can establish a “legitimate, unrelated reason” for its conduct.

The Court dismissed Jaszczyszyn’s interference claim because the employee received all the leave to which she was entitled. It went on to hold that Jaszczyszyn failed to show a causal connection between her protected FMLA activity and the termination of her employment. The Court concluded that the termination “turned in large part” on Jaszczyszyn’s own behavior during the investigation and her failure to refute the employer’s honest belief that her behavior in the Facebook photos was inconsistent with her claims of total disability.

If your employer has falsely accused you of FMLA fraud or if you need assistance in exercising your right to leave, please contact one of the experienced employment attorneys at Hawks Quindel, S.C.

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Nicholas Fairweather