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The “Honest Belief Rule”, does it Apply to FMLA?

Generally, the “honest belief rule” is a defense available to employers where an employee has brought a discrimination action against them. This rule allows an employer to proffer a non-discriminatory basis for the adverse employment action by establishing its “reasonable reliance on particularized facts that were before it at the time the decision was made.”[1]

However, a recent Southern District of Ohio decision questioned the applicability of the honest belief rule in Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) actions. In Yontz v. Dole Fresh Vegetables, Inc., the Plaintiff filed an action against Dole for retaliation against him in exercising his rights under FMLA.[2] Defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, alleging, among other things, that the honest belief rule protected it from liability for terminating Yontz.[3] In questioning whether the honest belief rule could be asserted as a defense in an FMLA action, the Court opined, that while the 6th Circuit has not determined the availability of this defense in regards to the FMLA, “to so rule would be to reward and encourage ignorance of the law our democratic process has seen fit to enshrine in law.”[4] The Court went on to state that even if such a rule would apply in a FMLA case, that this rule is not absolute, and an employer must make a “reasonably informed and considered” decision in taking adverse actions against employees.[5]

As a result, employers should always strive to make sure they are making “reasonably informed and considered” decisions in taking any adverse actions against an employee. Most notably, employers should be aware that while they may hold an “honest belief” in the adverse action taken against an employee, this generally available defense may not be a shield against liability in FMLA cases.

[1] Blizzard v. Marion Tech. College, et. al, 3:09-cv-1643 (ND Ohio, October 19, 2012); Yontz v. Dole Fresh Vegatables, Inc., 3:13-cv-066 (SD Ohio, October 10, 2014).

[2] 3:13-cv-066 (SD Ohio, October 10, 2014).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

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