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Plaintiff’s Dishonesty Regarding Physical Condition After Posting Facebook Vacation Photos Sufficient to Defeat Her FMLA Claim

In a recent decision by the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the Court granted summary judgment to Detroit Medical Center (“DMC”) after it fired a nurse shortly after her return from FMLA leave. The employee, while on FMLA leave for severe back pain, took a pre-planned vacation to Mexico. While on vacation, the employee soaked up the sun while riding in motorboats and drinking beer. She posted pictures of these activities to Facebook after her return, still on FMLA leave. Several of the employee’s co-workers saw these pictures and informed their supervisor that they believed this to be misuse of FMLA leave.

An investigation was conducted, and the employee was asked about her physical capabilities while on vacation. She emphasized that she required the use of a wheelchair while traveling through airports because of her back problems. She returned to work during the investigation for a meeting. During the meeting, she initially reiterated the importance of the wheelchair use because she could not stand for long periods of time, but later admitted she had been lying and that she was able to walk through the airports.

Within one week of this meeting, the employee was terminated. She brought suit, claiming that her FMLA rights were interfered with and that her former employer retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave. The Court granted DMC summary judgment, holding that it had a right to fire the employee for her dishonesty when it knew about the dishonesty before terminating her. Specifically, the employee was terminated for violating DMC’s Progressive Discipline Policy related to dishonesty, falsifying or omitting information. The fact that the employee lied about her wheelchair use on vacation was sufficient to invoke the policy and provided a legitimate reason for her termination.

The Court alternatively noted that DMC was entitled to summary judgment under the “honest belief” doctrine, a Sixth Circuit doctrine which entitles an employer to summary judgment when the employer honestly believes, based on particular facts, that the employee engaged in wrongdoing sufficient for termination.

This case result provides a good reminder that an employer should not be hesitant to enforce its rules, and enforce them equally against employees. Also, while not typically productive to monitor employee Facebook accounts, it is important to investigate and take seriously accusations by co-workers that Facebook behavior has a detrimental effect on the workplace.

Lineberry v. Detroit Medical Center, et al., Case No. 11-13752, 2013 WL 438689 (Feb. 5, 2013)