The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently affirmed a jury verdict and award of damages of approximately $2 million dollars against an employer for its violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This case involved the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) and a former employee who had worked for the MWRA for 11 years.
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) recently affirmed a jury verdict and award of damages of approximately $2 million dollars (which included punitive and liquidated damages) against an employer for its violation of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This case involved the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) and a former employee who had worked for the MWRA for 11 years. The employee was terminated after he requested and used FMLA leave in order to have an operation on his foot. This case involved an employer who did not understand the law surrounding FMLA and an employee’s ability to take vacations even while on FMLA leave.
The employee submitted his doctor’s FMLA certification forms to the MWRA human resources department, which indicated the employee would need about six weeks of leave and maybe an extension due to the fact he may have to wear a boot to reduce weight bearing on his foot. Another form submitted by the employee to human resources indicated that the employee would need another additional week off for his recovery.
Prior to the employee’s return from FMLA leave, he took a vacation to Mexico, which was a trip he took every year with his family. The employee had informed his supervisors of this planned vacation. After his return to work, human resources started an investigation after it had learned the employee had taken vacation during FMLA leave. As part of the investigation, the MWRA obtained videos of the employee walking, driving and lifting luggage. Human resources interviewed the employee and he indicated that all of his conduct was consistent with his doctor’s limitations stated in his FMLA forms. After its investigation, human resources determined that the employee had “misrepresented” his disability for which he had obtained FMLA leave as well as salary continuation benefits. He was placed on administrative leave pending a further review of the issue by upper management at the MWRA. The MWRA senior management agreed with the initial recommendation and terminated the employee citing the reason was his failure to be truthful during the interview and misrepresenting his inability to work while taking leave. At trial, the MWRA used the video and photographs it had obtained of the employee while standing on a boat and holding a large fish. Interestingly, the senior management review of the investigation did not include a review of the FMLA leave certification forms and doctor’s statements or these vacation photographs when it reviewed the initial investigation.
After a trial, a jury ruled in favor of the employee and awarded damages that included back pay, front pay, and liquidated damages that totaled almost $2 million. The employer appealed the decision to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), which in turn affirmed the jury’s decision in favor of the employee. The SJC clarified in this decision that the fact an employee alone takes vacation during FMLA leave is not a sufficient reason to discipline or terminate an employee. The inquiry must consider more than simply the fact a vacation occurred, but has to look at whether the employee’s conduct in general is inconsistent with the reason the employee took FMLA leave. “[A]n employer may validly consider an employee’s conduct on vacation –or, for that matter, anywhere—that is inconsistent with his or her claimed reason for medical leave, when the employer has such information at the time the employer is evaluating whether the leave has been properly or improperly used.” (Emphasis added).
The court emphatically stated that the employee could have recovered from his foot surgery almost anywhere – “An employee recovering from a leg injury may sit with his or her leg raised by the sea shore while fully complying with FMLA leave requirements, but may not climb Machu Picchu without abusing the FMLA Process.” An employer would have to establish that there was some inconsistency between the claimed reason for the medical leave and certain conduct that occurred while the employee was on vacation. An employer cannot simply assume, even in good faith, that all vacations are an improper use of FMLA leave because the law provides that such conduct is allowed so long as it is consistent with the reasons for the FMLA leave. The SJC noted that the MWRA did not properly review the employee’s medical leave documentation and necessity for leave when determining whether he had abused it. The MWRA did not understand the law surrounding when an employee’s use of vacation while on FMLA leave may be permissible. Additionally, the MWRA human resources manager’s testimony that all vacations were prohibited during FMLA leave did not support the MWRA’s argument that it had acted with a good faith during its investigation that taking a vacation was inconsistent with the need for FMLA leave.
This case emphasizes that employers and their managers must understand the law regarding FMLA leave and all other similar disability/accommodation laws before taking any adverse action against an employee. The MWRA may have avoided certain damages in this case had it conducted a thorough and unbiased investigation and understood the law surrounding FMLA leave. Employers should always seek legal advice whenever they are unfamiliar with an area of law or an employee’s rights before they take disciplinary action against an employee.