The honest-belief rule is one of most effective shields available to employers in discrimination cases:
As long as an employer has an honest belief in its proffered nondiscriminatory reason for discharging an employee, the employee cannot establish that the reason was pretextual simply because it is ultimately shown to be incorrect. An employer has an honest belief in its reason for discharging an employee where the employer reasonably relied on the particularized facts that were before it at the time the decision was made.
What happens in an FMLA claim, however? Can an employer use the honest-belief rule to fend off an employee’s claim that an employer interfered with FMLA rights? Yontz v. Dole Fresh Vegetables (S.D. Ohio 10/10/14) says “no.”
The case involved an employee whose newborn daughter had Down syndrome. He got stuck on vacation in Florida because of medical complications with the daughter, which delayed his post-vacation return-to-work date. The employer, based on pattern of similar prior non-medical issues with extended vacations, believed he was malingering and fired him.
The employer claimed as its defense to Yontz’s FMLA claim that it had an “honest belief” that Yontz “misused his pre-approved, intermittent FMLA leave.” The court disagreed, and rejected the application of the honest-belief defense in FMLA interference cases:
Dole may not use an honest mistaken belief that Yontz misused FMLA leave as a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for his termination. That Yontz received attendance points for using what may have been legitimate intermittent FMLA leave is the problem, not a legitimate, non-discriminatory excuse for the problem. The Sixth Circuit has not decided whether the rule applies to FMLA interference claims. To so rule would be to reward and encourage ignorance of a law our democratic process has seen fit to enshrine in law.
Per this case, the FMLA requires more than an honest belief to deny an employee FMLA leave. Thankfully, the FMLA provides employers myriad tools to check and double-check the legitimacy of an employee’s claim for leave. Employers have medical certifications, re-certifications, checks for authenticity and clarification, and second and third opinions. As this case shows, an “honest belief” will not save an employer who denies an employee’s FMLA request without first exhausting all available avenues of communication and clarification with the employee.