Single day of FMLA abuse is grounds for termination, says 4th Circuit

United Airlines did not violate the federal Family and Medical Leave Act when it fired a worker for putting in for family leave on a scheduled workday in the middle of an extended out-of-country vacation, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled.

Masoud Sharif, who worked for United at Washington-Dulles International Airport, decided to take a 3-week vacation to South Africa in March 2014. However, United had scheduled him for two customer-service shifts right smack in the middle of his time off. Using United’s shift-swap website, Sharif found someone to cover the second day, but not the first. Then Sharif — who’d been previously diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and had been authorized to take FMLA days intermittently to deal with panic attacks — requested a day of medical leave for the first day.

The airline found it odd that Sharif took FMLA leave for the only shift he was scheduled to work those three weeks and that his time off coincided with that of his wife, also a United employee.  It also noticed he’d taken FMLA leave under similar circumstances a year earlier.  In an interview with human resources when Sharif returned, he claimed he tried to get back to Washington the day of his scheduled shift but couldn’t get on a flight and suffered a panic attack that caused him to use FMLA leave, although records showed he flew to Italy the next day to see his niece.

After Sharif was fired for FMLA abuse, he sued United, saying its accusation of lying was pretext for retaliation.

The 4th Circuit ruled for United, saying that if Sharif’s case went forward, FMLA abuse would “spread like wildfire.”

But employers should take note: FMLA retaliation is a serious issue. While this case seems to show a clear case of abuse, other cases may not be so clear-cut. That’s why it’s important to talk to an employment lawyer before taking any negative action against a worker over leave.