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Court Confirms Honest Mistake Does Not Mean Doom in FMLA Suit

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If you fire a staffer for allegedly abusing leave and then turn out to be wrong, you can still win in court — if you meet this one requirement.

Tom Seeger, a network technician who worked for Cincinnati Bell Telephone Co. for nearly 30 years, suffered from a herniated lumbar disc and was approved for FMLA leave. His doctor stated that he could do "no work," including light duty. That meant, under his company's policies, that he could receive paid disability leave while out on FMLA.

Four days later, two co-workers ran into a "seemingly unimpaired" Seeger with his wife at Oktoberfest in downtown Cincinnati. One of those colleagues, knowing Seeger was on paid disability leave, alerted HR. The company responded by conducting an investigation which included sworn statements from the two witnesses, a review of Seeger's medical records and a request from Seeger and his doctor for information relevant to why Seeger was at Oktoberfest. After reviewing the info, the company suspended Seeger and ultimately fired him for "disability fraud," stating that he had "over-reported" his symptoms to avoid the part-time light-duty work that the company's paid-leave policy called for.

Seeger sued (case), claiming retaliation for taking FMLA leave. Based on the thoroughness of Cincinnati Bell's investigation and documentation, the court said the company met the requirements for protection under the "honest belief rule." The court found with the employer saying that the question was not if Seeger actually committed fraud, but if the company "reasonably and honestly" believed that he did. This company won because it could prove that it believed a worker was abusing leave.

Want to know more? Read the full article by Dan Wisniewski at HR Morning