Last week, I discussed the bounds of the “honest belief rule” as a defense to a discrimination claim. Yesterday, in Seeger v. Cincinnati Bell Telephone Co. [pdf], the 6th Circuit used that same defense to affirm the termination of an employee who claimed retaliation under the FMLA. This case, though, has wider implications for employer who use surveillance to monitor the legitimacy of their employees’ medical leaves.
Tom Seeger took an approved leave of absence under the FMLA for a herniated lumbar disc. Four days after Seeger’s doctor certified him as completely unable to work—including any light duty, which entitled him to receive paid disability leave under the employer’s policy—two of Seeger’s co-workers saw him walking, seemingly unimpaired, at the Cincinnati Oktoberfest. One of the employees, who knew Seeger was collecting paid disability leave, reported his sighting to CBT’s human resources manager.
CBT conducted an investigation, which consisted of obtaining sworn statements from the two employees who saw Seeger, reviewing Seeger’s medical records, disability file, and employment history, and consulting with CBT’s internal medical manager. Based on the inconsistency between Seeger’s reported medical condition and his reported behavior at Oktoberfest, CBT terminated Seeger for “disability fraud” (over-reporting his symptoms to avoid light-duty and continue collecting disability payments).
Relying on the “honest belief rule,” the 6th Circuit concluded that CBT’s termination decision did not violate the FMLA:
CBT made a “reasonably informed and considered decision” before it terminated him, and Seeger has failed to show that CBT’s decisionmaking process was “unworthy of credence.” … The determinative question is not whether Seeger actually committed fraud, but whether CBT reasonably and honestly believed that he did….
CBT never disputed that Seeger suffered from a herniated disc…. Seeger’s ability to walk unaided for ten blocks and remain at the crowded festival for ninety minutes understandably raised a red flag for CBT, giving it reason to suspect that Seeger was misrepresenting his medical condition in an attempt to defraud CBT’s paid-leave policy.
This case has wide implications. There are many laws that entitle employees to take time off from work: FMLA, ADA (disability), PDA (pregnancy), Title VII (religious accommodation), and state workers’ compensation laws, to name a few. Many companies use surveillance to curb leave of absence abuses. I am not suggesting that you surveil every employee who takes leave from your workplace. Without a good faith belief supporting the surveillance, a court could conclude that your actions are unlawful.
If, however, you have a good faith reason to test the legitimacy of an employee’s leave via surveillance or other monitoring, Seeger's invocation of the honest belief rule will offer you some protection if you misinterpret the results of your investigation.