What happens if a boss thinks a worker is abusing medical leave?

Tom Seeger was a phone technician in Cincinnati who took medical leave from his company due to a herniated disc. While he was on leave, he attended an Oktoberfest celebration downtown, and ran into several co-workers. The co-workers later told the company that they had seen Seeger at the party, and that he didn’t seem terribly impaired.

The phone company responded by firing Seeger for abusing his medical leave.

Seeger was upset. He claimed that he was following his doctor’s orders, and the mere fact that he could walk a short distance at a party didn’t mean that he wasn’t in frequent pain or that he was able to return to work.

This type of dispute is arising much more frequently than in the past, and is leading to a lot of lawsuits.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows many employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they have a serious medical problem, or are caring for a family member who does. It even allows them to take time off in short increments if necessary. (Some states have similar laws of their own.)

This is a very valuable benefit to workers who need time off due to an injury or illness. But as employees’ awareness of the law has increased, some companies have started to suspect that workers are abusing the privilege – that is, that they’re taking time off from work even though they don’t really need it, and their “vacations” are making it harder for companies to plan ahead and manage their workflow.

In a growing number of cases, workers are being fired for “medical leave fraud.” Some companies are even hiring investigators to follow employees around if they suspect the workers are lying about their medical problems.

Of course, in some cases it can be hard to know who’s right. But a growing number of courts are deciding that employers have the right to fire workers for fraud as long as they have at least some grounds to believe that the employee was abusing the privilege.

For instance, a federal appeals court in Seeger’s case said that the phone company acted properly because it made a “reasonably informed and considered decision” before it fired him.

The court emphasized that it wasn’t necessary that the phone company made the right decision. It said it was entirely possible that Seeger wasn’t malingering at all, and that the phone company simply made a mistake. But it said the company couldn’t be sued as long as it investigated the situation, actually believed Seeger was doing something wrong, and had some reasonable basis to back up its conclusion.

In another recent case, a factory in Indianapolis was facing a problem with absenteeism, and it hired a private investigator to follow 35 employees whom it suspected of abusing medical leave. One of those employees took time off to take his mother to a medical appointment, but the investigator reported that he didn’t leave his house all day. The employee was fired.

The employee responded by submitting a doctor’s note, a letter from the nursing home where his mother lived, and the sign-out sheet from the nursing home, all suggesting that he really did take his mother to the appointment. But the company believed that these documents were suspicious and inconsistent.

A federal appeals court sided with the factory. It said that the company’s investigation wasn’t perfect, but regardless of who was right, the company had a right to fire the employee if it had an honest belief that he was abusing his leave.

These rulings are bad news for employees, because they indicate that employees can potentially be fired for a misunderstanding, even if they did nothing wrong. They certainly suggest that any employee who takes family or medical leave should keep as many records as possible in case their right to the time off is questioned.

On the other hand, the decisions don’t give free rein to businesses, either. A business still has to make a careful decision before firing someone on leave, and it has to be sure it has solid evidence for its actions, in case those actions trigger a lawsuit. Firing someone on the basis of a mere suspicion of abuse, without carefully documenting the evidence, is a good way to get into legal trouble.