An Honest Belief That an Employee is Misusing FMLA Leave Can Defeat a Retaliation or Interference Claim Under the FMLA

December 14, 2023

By: Meagan Cooper Borgerson

     In Shipton v. Balt. Gas & Elec. Co., Civil Action No. 20-cv-01926-LKG, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64120 (D. Md. Apr. 11, 2023), the United States District Court for the District of Maryland considered whether an employee’s claims were time-barred under the two year statute of limitations for Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) claims, and whether an employer’s termination of that employee was proper when the employer honestly believed the employee was misusing his FMLA leave.  The court answered both questions in the affirmative.

     In or around 2014, Michael Shipton was hired by Baltimore Gas & Electric (“BGE”).  Years earlier, Shipton was diagnosed with diabetes and suffered from certain diabetes-related symptoms, including hypoglycemia.  In 2017, Shipton was absent from work on several occasions related to his diabetes.  That year, Shipton twice applied for and was granted intermittent FMLA leave for his diabetes-related symptoms.  With each 2017 application for FMLA leave, Shipton submitted medical certifications that stated he often suffered from hypoglycemic episodes, “which leads to the following (and not-all-inclusive): sweats, shakey [sic], blurred vision, dizzy, clammy, balance disturbance, foggy/confused, [headaches], nauseous.”

     Because of the hypoglycemic symptoms Shipton frequently experienced, BGE determined that Shipton could no longer hold a commercial driver’s license (“CDL”).  In May of 2018, Shipton submitted two medical certifications to BGE: one to substantiate another request for intermittent FMLA leave, and another to substantiate the reinstatement of his CDL.  The latter medical certification, however, stated that Shipton had suffered from “no hypoglycemic events in over 2 years.” (Emphasis in original).  BGE then held an FMLA fact-finding conference predicated upon the discrepancies in Shipton’s medical certifications and, ultimately, terminated Shipton due to his “misuse of sick leave.”

     Shipton filed suit, alleging his termination interfered with his FMLA rights and was in retaliation for his use of leave pursuant to the FMLA.  The district court granted BGE’s motion for summary judgment, holding that, unless a plaintiff can prove a willful violation of the FMLA, a two year (rather than three year) statute of limitations applies.  To this end, the court explained that, as a general matter, because BGE repeatedly granted Shipton’s FMLA leave requests prior to termination of his employment, there was no willfulness and the two year statute of limitations applied.  The court also noted that, if an employer granted an employee’s request for leave under the FMLA, generally the element of willfulness cannot be proven.  

     Next, the court held that Shipton could not prevail on his FMLA interference and retaliation claims because his termination was based on BGE’s honestly held belief that Shipton was misusing his sick leave, and that belief was premised on the conflicting medical certifications Shipton submitted.  In so holding, the court found that the reasons for Shipton’s prior FMLA leave (in 2017 and early 2018) was his hypoglycemia and that the latter submitted medical certification directly contradicted that need for sick leave.  Shipton argued that his need for FMLA leave was broader in scope than only his hypoglycemia episodes, but because BGE was able to prove it honestly believed Shipton was misusing his leave, the court granted summary judgment in BGE’s favor.

     The court’s decision in Shipton provides helpful guidance to employers regarding the provision of FMLA leave to employees.  In this regard, although the use of FMLA leave is required by law, employers are not required to provide such leave if they have a basis to honestly believe the FMLA leave is being abused or otherwise misused.