A Recent Case Holds Lessons for Employers Faced with Suspicious FMLA Leave Requests

In Moran v. Redford Union School District, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan recently held that an employee with a history of absenteeism who requested FMLA leave but took a vacation in Florida was not retaliated against in violation of the FMLA when she was terminated for refusing to sign a last chance agreement.  

The plaintiff became employed by the School District as a part-time bus driver beginning in 2001.  She was subject to a collective bargaining agreement, which provided that part-time bus drivers were entitled to five days of paid leave per year.  She had a history of absenteeism and related warnings.  On March 10, 2008, she received a verbal warning for absenteeism.  In the disciplinary meeting, she requested to take two days of leave on March 30, 2008 and April 1, 2008 to travel to Florida using airline tickets that she had previously purchased.  Her request was denied. 

A few days later, the plaintiff had an appointment with her physician, who diagnosed her with acute situational anxiety based primarily upon her complaints of work-related stress.  He provided her with a note indicating that she could not work from March 17, 2008 through April 7, 2008.  She requested a leave of absence premised upon her physician's note, and did not report to work during that time frame.  From March 20, 2008 through April 1, 2008, she traveled to Florida.

Suspecting that the plaintiff fabricated her leave request to enable her to travel to Florida, the School District attempted to contact her at home on several occasions during her leave and she did not return any messages.  Upon her return from Florida, she was suspended pending an investigation into the reason for her absence.  The union attempted to negotiate a last chance agreement, whereby the plaintiff would be reinstated and agree, among other things, that any further absences would result in termination, and she would forgo any grievance in the event of her termination.  The plaintiff refused to sign the agreement and was terminated. 

The School District argued that the plaintiff did not engage in statutorily protected activity under the FMLA because she fabricated her alleged need for leave, and that it had a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for terminating her--i.e. her failure to sign the last chance agreement. 

While the Court held that a jury could find that there was nothing plainly inconsistent about traveling to Florida while suffering from acute situational anxiety (some might disagree), it held that the School District had an honest belief that the plaintiff has misused her FMLA leave, and its termination of the plaintiff for failing to sign a last chance agreement was not a pretext for discrimination.

This case provides significant guidance to employers who are contemplating disciplining employees whom they suspect of misusing FMLA leave.  It also suggests that last chance agreements may be a viable option where an employee has a history of absenteeism and the employer has an honest belief that the employee has misused FMLA leave. 

Employers should consult their counsel when evaluating whether to discipline an employee for suspected misuse of FMLA leave.