A recent case involving the termination of an employee after her supervisor saw pictures of her on Facebook illustrates the importance of having appropriate, behavioral and thorough documentation and following your organization’s written policies.
The employee was fired after her supervisor saw pictures of her dancing and playing frisbee at a Polish festival while she claimed to be in too much pain to attend work. The employee filed a lawsuit against her former employer, alleging that her firing was unlawful because she was protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The FMLA guarantees employees the right to take unpaid time off in order to deal with certain “serious medical conditions” affecting themselves or members of their immediate family. However, when the worker’s supervisor saw pictures of her partying on Facebook, did that negate the legal protection offered by the FMLA?
Let’s take a closer look at the details.
According to court documents, Sara Jaszczyszyn was employed as a customer service representative at Advantage Health Physician Network. Approximately 18 months into her employment, Sara told her company that she was experiencing worsening pain from a 10-year-old back injury.
Her doctor completed a Work Release Form asserting that she would be “completely incapacitated” during the week lasting from August 31 through September 7. The paperwork submitted by Sara’s physician indicated that she was having a few “flare ups” each month and would occasionally need to take several days off at a time.
Faith Shovein, an HR representative at Advantage, told Sara that she did not have adequate paid time off to cover her absences and recommended that she apply for unpaid leave under the FMLA.
Shovein also forwarded Sara several documents detailing the company’s policies on FMLA leave. Sara was required to stay in regular contact with her supervisor and, because she was approved for “intermittent” leave, Sara was required to follow Advantage’s usual absence notification policy.
According to Advantage, problems began to emerge almost immediately. Sara had been approved for intermittent leave, but allegedly did not return to work at all after submitting certification documents on September 9. She also failed to send required notifications to her supervisor.
Although Sara’s physician signed a second Work Release Form indicating that she would be completely incapacitated for three weeks in October, the inconsistencies in her story and behavior began raising questions within the company’s HR department.
The questionable actions were noted, but Advantage continued to treat Sara’s absences as FMLA leave.
One of the company’s employees noticed some photos Sara had posted on Facebook. The pictures showed her dancing and playing frisbee at a festival – activities that are not typically performed by people experiencing so much back pain that they cannot go into work for weeks at a time.
Sara’s co-worker brought the photos to the attention of their manager, who met with other company officials to determine the best course of action. They soon confronted Sara about the contrast between her claim to be “completely incapacitated” and what was shown in her Facebook pictures.
When Sara was unable to offer an explanation, she was fired. Subsequently, she brought a lawsuit against Advantage in federal court, alleging that her termination was an unlawful act of “retaliation” for her decision to take FMLA leave.
The court dismissed Sara’s claims, noting that her “fraudulent behavior” seemed to be the primary cause for her termination and that Advantage had acted in accordance with its established policies for dealing with difficult employees. At each step, the company’s managers had documented Sara’s statements and behavior. In his analysis of the case, Judge Mattice took note of the fact that Advantage was consistently applying its human resources policies in Sara’s case.
This case reveals the importance of written policies, appropriate, behavioral and thorough documentation, and management that is willing to follow the policies it puts in place.