Posting Vacation Pics on Facebook While on FMLA Is a Bad Idea

The FMLA turned 20 last week and there has been a flurry of articles and posts discussing how the FMLA has changed the workplace, whether it imposes too high of a burden on employers, and predicting how it will likely continue to evolve. Academic commentary aside, though, we all know that the FMLA is no easy road to hoe. The truth is that the law is a very technical one and its application must comply with very detailed technical requirements.

Which is why we get all sorts of excited over FMLA cases that are resolved in favor of employers. The case du jour is precisely that--a win for the employer. It's such a great set of facts, though, that I'm going to switch up the normal order of things and start today's post with my "lessons learned." Admittedly, they're a bit snarkier than usual. But, I dare say, spot on.

5 lessons for employees to learn from Lineberry v. Richards:

1. Give serious consideration to whether you should be Facebook friends with your coworkers. They'll rat you out in a heartbeat and you're a fool if you think otherwise.

2. Don't demand or request sympathy from your "friends." If they really are your friends, you wouldn't be asking. Whining about why you have not received a get-well card constitutes a request for sympathy.

3. Do not press "Send" until you have cooled off. Getting into an email flame war is never a good idea. It is a very, very bad idea when your boss is the target of your flames. It is an even worse idea when you tell tall tales in the inflammatory email. After all, what you type can and will be used against you in a court of law (and by your employer).

4. Don't lie, dummy. You'll get caught. There are cameras everywhere, including at the airport and in your friend's hands as they snap your vacation photos.

5. Don't sue your employer after you've been fired for lying. If your employer wins, information about your case and related acts of deceit will be posted all around the Internet. It may be embarrassing.

The Facts

The plaintiff-employee was working as a full-time R.N. for the defendant-hospital when she was injured on the job. She was approved for FMLA leave for the maximum 12-week period. By all accounts, she was a good employee with satisfactory performance.

While on FMLA leave, the employee took a prepaid, planned vacation to Mexico. Her physician (who worked at the hospital), approved the vacation and testified that it would not conflict with her recovery.

During her leave, her co-workers saw pictures of the employee on her Facebook page, which showed her on vacation, riding in a motorboat, drinking, etc. She also posted pictures of herself holding her infant grandchildren--one in each arm as she stood. In her status updates she talked about trips to Home Depot, babysitting her grandkids, and taking online classes.

Her co-workers complained to their supervisors about what they considered to be a misuse of FMLA leave. About half-way through her leave, the employee sent her supervisor an email complaining that she had not received a get-well card from coworkers. Her supervisor responded:

[T]he staff were waiting until you came back from your vacation in Mexico to determine the next step. Since you were well enough to travel on a 4+ hour flight, wait in customs lines, bus transport, etc., we were assuming you would be well enough to come back to work.

The employee, apparently unable to hold back, sent the following email reply:

As far as the airport, customs, etc., goes, I was in a wheelchair because I couldn't stand for that long. As far as the plane goes (3.5 hour flight), I was up and down the entire flight, but sitting is so much easier on me than standing. I am able to walk short distances, but am unable to stand for more than 10 minutes at a time.

* * * * *

I want to come back to work as soon as possible and wouldn't have went to Mexico if a wheelchair was not available at both airports so I would not have to stand for any length of time.

The next week, her supervisor reported her belief that the employee was misusing her leave. On the same day the employee was approved by her physician to return to work, the hospital's HR and Loss Time Management departments decided she would be terminated.

In accordance with the hospital's progressive-discipline policy, the employee was called in for an investigative meeting prior to her termination. At the meeting, the employee reiterated that she had used a wheelchair in all airports on her trip. When the hospital's Director of Security Investigations presented the employee with the Facebook pictures, she admitted that she had lied and, in fact, had never used a wheelchair on her vacation.

She was fired for violating the hospital's policy prohibiting "dishonesty, falsifying, or omitting information." The employee sued, alleging that the hospital unlawfully interfered with her FMLA rights by denying her reinstatement upon return from leave and by retaliating against her for taking FMLA leave.

The court granted summary judgment to the employer on two alternative grounds. First, the court found that there was no evidence that the employee was terminated as a result of her FMLA leave. Instead, she was terminated because she violated the hospital's policy against dishonesty.

Alternatively, the court found that the employer was entitled to summary judgment under the "honest-belief" doctrine because the employer honestly believed, based on particularized facts, that the employee lied and misused her FMLA leave.

For those of you who may be keeping score, this counts as a "W" in the Employers' column.

Lineberry v. Richards, No. 11-13752 (E.D. Mich. Feb. 5, 2013) [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers].

[H/T to the Disability Leave Law Blog]

Read more Labor and Employment Law insights from Margaret (Molly) DiBianca in the Delaware Employment Law Blog.  

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