- On May 15, 2015
FMLA Leave Court Cases: Brown v. Conopco, Inc.
When an employee is going through a difficult health-related situation with a family member, he or she might feel like obtaining and filling out paperwork is one of the last things they need to worry about.
However, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) dictates that employees who are requesting unpaid leave must provide accurate and complete documentation promptly under the law. When a company asks for documentation, it should not be seen as being a ‘stickler’ for the rules – just a company trying to follow the law.
The issue of timely and complete documentation came into play with the case of Keith D. Brown v. Conopco Inc. Brown was terminated by the company for not providing sufficient documentation and being suspected of abusing his FMLA leave. He countered by filing legal action and claiming that the company both interfered with his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for taking leave.
Brown started working for Conopco in December 1997 as a forklift driver. In addition to later transferring to a machine operator position, Brown also became a union shop steward. In around 2001 or 2002, Brown started asking for FMLA leave to go with his foster mother, Marion Whiting, to the doctor. She had been identified as having dementia; her short-term memory was deteriorating, and the doctors had recommended that a 3rd person be present at doctor visits.
As outlined by company policy, Brown handed in a medical validation in 2003 to back up his request for intermittent FMLA leave. The submitted form said Whiting needed help with “medical, personal, safety, or transportation needs.”
As his foster mother’s health declined, Brown needed to provide more and more care; including cooking, administering medicine and providing comfort.
On October 6, 2004, around two years after the initial leave request, Brown got a call at work from Whiting’s apartment complex saying there had been a flooding in his foster mother’s apartment. Brown submitted a form to request FMLA leave and subsequently left for his mother’s home.
On October 8, Brown got another phone call and subsequently left work to meet with insurance company representatives over the issues related to the flood. Before leaving, he submitted another FMLA request form. Upon reaching the apartment, Brown found complex maintenance workers who needed to do repair work, not insurance representatives.
On October 11, Brown was called into a meeting with his supervisor Timothy Manvilla and another union shop steward, Marian Perry. In the meeting, Manvilla asked Brown to provide documentation regarding his absences on October 6 and 8 by October 18, one week later.
Brown agreed to the deadline, but it passed without him furnishing any documentation. He later said he “tried,” but could not get in touch with the complex supervisor. He later testified that he attempted to inform Manvilla on the 18th, but his supervisor was not at work that day. He said he did, however, relay a message to Perry, the union steward. Brown eventually approached Manvilla on October 21 and told his supervisor he would furnish paperwork as soon as possible.
Brown also told the company that he needed to take FMLA leave on October 22 to take Whiting to a therapy appointment. Having yet to give documentation for the October 6 and 8 absences, Conopco began to suspect Brown was abusing his leave and hired an investigator to follow Brown on the 22nd.
The investigator found that Whiting never left her apartment during Brown’s regularly scheduled shift that day.
On October 25, Manvilla and other company officials met with Brown. He was once again asked to provide documentation for October 6 and 8; and was also given a new deadline of October 29, four days later. He was also asked about his whereabouts on October 22. Brown responded by saying he was waiting on the apartment complex management for the documentation. He also said his mother’s appointment of the 22nd was cancelled because she was upset.
On October 28, Brown did produce documentation from the apartment complex management that said he was helping his mother with issues related to a flood on October 6 and 8. The document made no mention of an insurance adjuster, so Manvilla asked for additional documentation. Brown’s supervisor also asked for documentation regarding the 22nd. On November 9, Brown provided documentation from Whiting’s therapist saying an appointment had been cancelled.
On December 3, Conopco officially terminated Brown for failing to provide adequate documentation related to FMLA leave.
Brown filed for legal action in October 2006, alleging that the company both interfered with his right to FMLA leave and retaliated against him for taking leave.
District Court Case
With respect to the interference claim, the Maryland District Court said that just because an employee provides “some documentation,” that does not mean an employer is wrong to terminate that person if the documentation is inadequate under the FMLA.
The court also said that it’s important to note that Conopco believed its employee was fraudulently taking FMLA leave and because that belief was rational, the company was justified.
With respect to retaliation, the court said Conopco offered valid, nondiscriminatory reasons to terminate Brown: the inability to furnish proper documents and rational belief that he was abusing his FMLA leave. Brown failed to rebut either of these charges, the court added.
In filing the legal action, Brown also said the reasons the company fired him were pretextual, suggesting a strained personal relationship with Manvilla was the true reason he was let go. However, the court said, Brown gave no evidence to support this charge.
Brown also claimed he was targeted for termination because he was one of the two employees at that facility taking FMLA leave. However, the court said, the company had as many as 12 employees who had taken FMLA leave while Brown was employed there.
The case of Brown v. Conopco illustrates that employees need to provide full, complete and timely documentation of their need for FMLA leave. Submitting paperwork with a few scant details may not be enough. However in some cases, an employee can simply send in a certification form, and the case can be processed if all the needed info is present. They don't specifically need to specify or designate their leave as FMLA.