Mexican Vacation Photos on Facebook Foil an Employee’s FMLA Claim

By Eric B. Meyer

I have three kids, ages three and under. So a vacation for me is the half hour of quiet time I get in the bathroom every morning.

It’s not like the old days. I remember Spring Break ’97 in the Bahamas. Sun, beach, water sports, and a couple of adult beverages.

It was kinda like the Mexican vacation that Carol Lineberry, a former employee of Detroit Medical Center, took back in 2011. These pictures she posted on Facebook — we didn’t have Facebook back in the day, so I’ll deny everything. EVERYTHING! — show that Ms. Lineberry is having a blast in Mexico.

Did I mention that Lineberry took this trip while taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act? Of course, she did. 

Vacationing in Mexico while on FMLA

In Lineberry v. Richards, the Mexican-vacationing Lineberry claimed that she was fired for taking FMLA to treat for “excruciating pain in her lower back and leg pain,” which restricted her to standing for only 15 minutes, not pushing or pulling more than 20 pounds, and not lifting more than 5-10 pounds.

No, it wasn’t the pictures of her holding two beers in one hand or even the shots of her on the speedboat. Maybe the beer was to numb the pain. And the speedboat? To balance the beer buzz? Who the hell knows?

What drew the ire of Detroit Medical Center was that Lineberry told them that she wouldn’t have vacationed in Mexico but for the airports having wheelchairs to assist her. What, with her “excruciating pain in her lower back and leg pain,” and all. But, as it turns out…

— BRACE YOURSELF!!! —

Ms. Lineberry never utilized any wheelchairs.

And she admitted as much under questioning from her employer when she returned to work from south of border. Then, at her deposition during the FMLA litigation, Lineberry again conceded that she lied to her employer about using wheelchairs.

Work rules apply — even to those on FMLA

Generally, FMLA requires an employer to restore an employee to her position upon return from leave. However, if the employer can show a lawful reason, i.e., a reason unrelated to an employee’s exercise of FMLA rights, for not restoring an employee on FMLA leave to her position, the employer will be justified to interfere with an employee’s FMLA leave rights.

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Here, the employer had a work rule on dishonesty and falsifying information. And Lineberry admitted that she lied to her employer about the wheelchairs.

So, she got fired. Put ’em all together and we have a firing unrelated to taking FMLA. Perfectly legal.

“Honest Belief” doctrine applies here too

Alternatively, the Court found that Detroit Medical Center could have prevailed on the FMLA claim under the “honest belief” doctrine. We’ve discussed that here a bunch. One time, booze was involved; another time, Mexico was involved.

You can call it serendipity. But, some employees are just stupider than stupid-stupid.

An employer prevails under the “honest belief” doctrine when the employer honestly believes, based on particularized facts, that an employee lied and misused her FMLA leave and disciplines/terminates such employee based on such belief. Here, you’ve got the Facebook pictures coupled with Lineberry’s lies about the use of a wheelchair as it related to her FMLA restrictions.

It’s fair say that most any reasonable employer would have concluded that Lineberry was abusing her FMLA leave.

Takeaways for employers:

  • Don’t be afraid to enforce your rules. Indeed, it’s the unequal enforcement that creates problems and lawsuits.
  • Don’t spy on your employees’ Facebook pages. You don’t have the time or resources. Plus, most of your employees behave like adults. So, treat them that way. But do respond when you learn that an employee’s Facebook behavior affects the workplace. Here, Detroit Medical Center learned about Lineberry’s fun in the sun when Lineberry’s co-workers complained to her supervisors about what Lineberry’s co-workers considered a misuse of FMLA leave.

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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