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Facebook Photos and an Unwinnable FMLA Lawsuit

Do you know that even if you did everything by the book, a court can still overturn a previous FMLA retaliation ruling? Just as important, employers often lose cases simply because of inconsistent applications of their own policies.

Both scenarios occurred in the case of Jones vs. Gulf Coast Health Care

Here’s what happened:

In 2014, Rodney Jones, an Activities Director, went on a 90-day FMLA leave to repair a damaged rotator cuff. Upon returning the following December he was examined by his doctor and told that he needed until February to recover before he could return to work. His employer granted him additional non-FMLA leave to satisfy the doctor’s requirements.

It was during this last bit of leave that Mr. Jones went on a poorly-timed vacation, posting photos to Facebook of his adventures in Busch Gardens and swimming in the ocean off St. Martins not once but twice! Upon returning, Mr. Jones was unsurprisingly investigated and fired from his job.

Mr. Jones sued, claiming that his employer violated his rights under the FMLA act when it terminated him. At first glance, this FMLA retaliation claim seemed to be an easy case to defend, especially with the proof on social media. The lower courts thought so, too and denied Mr. Jones’ FMLA retaliation claim.

But the 11th Circuit Court reversed the ruling.  Why?

Here’s what went wrong

For an FMLA retaliation claim to be successful, it must demonstrate that the employer terminated the employee because they exercised their FMLA rights.

To do this, it is vital to establish close temporal proximity between the FMLA leave and the termination. This is needed to show a causal connection between the two.

Gulf Coast Health Care could not show a sufficient amount of time had passed to rule out a causal relationship between Mr. Jones’ vacation and his termination. In other words, they couldn’t prove that they fired him for other reasons.

That didn’t stop them from trying, though. They trotted out their company’s social media policy and tried to use it to support their decision, although Mr. Jones said it was never mentioned during his termination interview.

The social media defense had another critical error: It had been written to prevent employees from making damaging posts about the company or sharing trade secrets. Yet they claimed that it degraded the morale of Mr. Jones’ fellow employees, despite the fact that no employee could be found to support their claims. This interpretation was inconsistent with the spirit in which it was written.

Takeaways: It is wise to be cautious when terminating an employee who has been on FMLA leave. And if you plan on relying on your company’s social media policy, you’d better be sure that you’re interpreting it the way it was written.

Do you have plans in place to ensure that your HR team is trained and consistent? Doing so can prevent costly mistakes like the ones that Gulf Coast Health Care made.

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