Finance News & Insights

Was FMLA surveillance justified or payback for smut-watching complaint?

Just because the FMLA gives employers the ability to initiate surveillance on employees they suspect of abusing their leave, it doesn’t mean you should take such a drastic step. 

In fact, as a recent FMLA lawsuit shows, doing so can come back to haunt employers.

In Walker v. City of Pocatello, employee Johnie Walker (yes, that’s actually his name) filed an FMLA interference and retaliation lawsuit against his employer. Normally, FMLA interference and retaliation lawsuits stem from denied leave or terminations related to the leave.

But not in this case.

Here, Walker wasn’t fired or disciplined and all of his requested FMLA was approved. But, at the behest of his supervisor, Scott Marchand, Walker’s employer did conduct surveillance on him while he was on leave.

And that surveillance was not only unwarranted, it was also retaliation for Walker’s previous investigation into a complaint that Marchand and his co-workers were accessing porn on their work computers. Because of these factors, the City had interfered with Walker’s FMLA rights and retaliated against him for taking leave in the first place — or so Walker’s lawsuit claimed.

Leave doesn’t need to be denied

The company tried to argue the FMLA claims were essentially invalid because Walker was granted full FMLA leave. Plus, the company added, it had every right to issue surveillance on Walker to prove rumors about FMLA abuse.

But Walker’s attorney claimed FMLA leave didn’t need to be denied for an individual’s rights to be interfered with. And, the attorney claimed, because there was no objective evidence to warrant his surveillance, there was reason to believe the whole thing stemmed from the complaint Walker made about his supervisor years earlier.

The court also had concerns about the company’s surveillance and ruled that when the company “had doubt about the validity of Walker’s medical condition, they did not simply request another medical opinion as contemplated by the [FMLA] regulations.”

Because of this, there was reason to believe the company’s surveillance may “chill” his use of FMLA or result in other negative consequences, the court ruled.

Second opinion, objective basis are key tools

The court’s ruling highlights a key step to take before resorting to surveillance. If you suspect someone is abusing FMLA, requesting a second opinion is a proven way to put your doubts to rest.

But it may not be your only option

FMLA Insights founder and attorney Jeff Nowak points out that a second opinion isn’t always needed if you have an objective basis. Here are a few reasons Nowak cites to prove you have an objective basis:

  • inconsistent reasons for leave
  • significant changes in frequency or duration of the absences, such that leave appears to be suspicious
  • reliable information you receive from the employee’s co-workers about his misuse of leave, or
  • suspicious patterns of absences over a short or longer period of time

Bottom line: The company in this case didn’t do nearly enough to prove its need for surveillance.

Cite: Walker v. City of Pocatello

This story was originally published on our sister website, HR Morning.

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