Mondelez Mixer Lacks Ingredients for Disability, Leave Claims

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By Patrick Dorrian

Mondelez Global LLC will avoid trial on the medical leave and disability bias claims of a worker it fired after he was arrested for alleged drunken driving on the day he was taking leave for leg pain, a federal appeals court ruled ( Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC , 2017 BL 26020, 3d Cir., No. 15-3839, 1/30/17 ).

Fredrick Capps failed to show that Mondelez, a snack food and beverage manufacturer, didn’t honestly believe he abused his leave rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act and was otherwise dishonest in supporting his leave request when it was challenged, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said Jan. 30.

Capps operated a dough-making mixing machine for the Nabisco successor.

The court joined the Seventh and Eighth circuits in holding that an employer’s honest belief regarding perceived FMLA misuse can defeat a retaliation claim under the statute.

It rejected the Sixth Circuit’s narrower formulation of the “honest belief” rule, which additionally requires an employer to show that its belief was “reasonably based on particularized facts.” Rather, an employer need only show that it honestly believed its reason for discharge, even if that belief was mistaken, the Third Circuit said.

Although application of the honest-belief rule is generally recognized in other areas of employment discrimination law, it's hardly a well-settled issue under the FMLA, so it's helpful to employers that the Third Circuit adopted it here, management-side attorney Jeff Nowak told Bloomberg BNA. The Chicago-based lawyer, who did not participate in the case, is a co-chair of Franczek Radelet P.C.’s labor and employment practice.

The rule can provide an effective defense for an employer to a job retaliation claim, but it has to be raised appropriately, he said Jan. 30. That means, in litigation in which the employee was terminated, the employer must show that it conducted a full and fair investigation, including affording the employee a chance to explain himself, before it fired him, or else the honest-belief rule doesn't apply, Nowak said.

Conducting full and fair workplace investigations also “goes a long way toward preventing litigation” in the first place, he added.

Leave Request Can Trigger ADA

A request for FMLA leave may, under the right circumstances, double as a request for a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the court also held. It agreed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed an amicus brief in the case.

But Capps didn’t show such circumstances here, the court decided, rejecting his ADA failure-to-accommodate claim. Mondelez provided Capps with all the leave he requested as an accommodation for avascular necrosis—a blood flow condition that causes cells to die by suffocation—and related hip problems. Following bilateral hip replacement surgery in 2003, Capps had been certified by Mondelez for intermittent leave under the FMLA every six months or so, the court said.

He, thus, lacked evidence that the company didn’t make a good-faith effort to accommodate him under the ADA, the court ruled.

Capps, who grieved his termination and was restored to the same position with the same benefits, likewise failed with his FMLA interference claim, the court ruled. He didn’t show he was denied a benefit to which he was entitled under the statute, given his reinstatement and the approval of his FMLA leave even for the days he was suspected of abusing his leave rights, the court said.

ADA Takeaway for Employers

Nowak said the ruling on the ADA issue wasn't surprising. The Third Circuit, he said, reaffirmed the principle that when an employee seeks help to do his job, even by requesting leave, “no magic words are needed.”

When an employer knows an employee is struggling at work for what may be a medical reason, the employer should talk to the employee about potential reasonable job modifications that will keep the employee working, Nowak said. “Focus on understanding the employee's medical situation, how it's impacting the employee's performance, and what can be done to help,” he said.

Statistics show that the longer an employee is away from a job for medical or other reasons, the less likely it is that the employee will return to work and be productive, he said. So the takeaway for employers is that they should make all reasonable efforts to keep their employees working through medical and disability issues, because it's what the law may require and it's better for their bottom-line, Nowak said.

Judge L. Felipe Restrepo wrote the opinion, which was joined by Judges Julio M. Fuentes and Patty Shwartz.

Karpf Karpf & Cerutti represented Capps. Tucker Law Group represented Mondelez.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com; Christopher Opfer at copfer@bna.com

Copyright © 2017 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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