Monday, December 21, 2009

Honest belief wins out over dishonest conduct in FMLA retaliation case

The facts of Weimer v. Honda of Am. (6th Cir. 12/14/09) [pdf] are straight forward. James Weimer requested FMLA leave from Honda after injuring his head at work, which Honda approved. After Weimer returned to work, two of his neighbors reported to Honda that it had seen Weimer build a new front porch on his home while on leave. Honda conducted an investigation, which included surveillance video. During the investigation, Weimer admitted \to working on his porch during his FMLA leave. Honda terminated him for misrepresenting his need for medical leave.

The 6th Circuit held that the jury, which found in Honda’s favor, was properly instructed that Honda could prevail if it was wrong as to its stated reason for discharge, but its belief was honestly held:

Weimer asserts that the only way the jury should have been able to decide against him was to conclude that he had deliberately lied to the physicians to go on FMLA leave, and he did not actually have a serious health condition. If Weimer engaged in personal behavior at home that was beyond the job-related restrictions given to him by his physicians, he argues he could do so at his own risk….

When considering whether Honda terminated Weimer for a legitimate reason, the jury was instructed that the issue was not so much whether Weimer actually lied, but rather whether Honda reasonably and honestly believed that Weimer lied….

Honda presented evidence of its investigation into Weimer’s alleged misrepresentations, including the video surveillance tape, interviews with eye-witnesses who saw Weimer working on his porch, and who reported that Weimer admitted that he came back to work because he realized he had been “busted,” and interviews with Weimer himself. Weimer’s own testimony at trial included contradictory statements about his activities that would lead a reasonable fact finder to question his credibility. There was sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that Honda reasonably relied on the facts before it at the time its decision to terminate Weimer was made.

The takeaway for employers from the Weimer case is to make sure that all reasons in support of a termination are documented. Because Honda could prove that Weimer violated its conduct standards, it became irrelevant whether he had actually lied about his need for FMLA leave. All that matter is that Honda could back-up its conclusion by its investigation. If you can verify the legitimacy of a termination rationale, a court is unlikely to second-guess you, even if your judgment turns out to be incorrect after the fact.

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