On June 5, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) issued a decision emphasizing that an employer’s well-designed and thorough internal investigations made prior to a termination decision can provide a strong defense to claims, but less carefully conducted investigations do not.
In DaPrato v. Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) terminated DaPrato’s employment because of its “honest belief” that his family vacation to Mexico during the last two weeks of his Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave for recovery from foot surgery was an improper use of the leave and warranted termination. The court rejected that position, and clarified the employer’s burden to avoid the award of liquidated damages (i.e., double damages) in claims brought pursuant to the FMLA.
The FMLA states that a judge “shall” award liquidated damages in accordance with statutory provisions if an employer is found liable for violating the FMLA. However, when an employer demonstrates that its conduct was “in good faith and that the employer had reasonable grounds for believing that [its action] was not a violation [of the FMLA]” liquidated damages are in the discretion of the judge and are not mandatory. The MWRA argued such discretionary authority should be available due to a “belief that the employee had misused FMLA leave, even if that belief is mistaken.”
The SJC emphasized that the statute requires employers to act both “in good faith” and on “reasonable grounds.” Applying this standard, the court found that, even though the defendant honestly believed it was complying with the FMLA, it lacked objectively reasonable grounds for such belief. Notably, the SJC found the MWRA’s investigation ignored the employee’s FMLA application and medical records and instead was grounded in “shock, outrage and offense” at the possibility of further FMLA leave for a scheduled knee surgery.
The MWRA’s policy that considered impermissible all vacation taken while on FMLA leave fell short the requirement that it be in good faith and reasonable. The SJC explicitly noted that an employer may not treat the mere fact that an employee went on vacation during FMLA leave, on its own, as impermissible. Instead, a vacation can be permissible or impermissible in terms of consistency with medical leave depending on whether the employee’s conduct while on vacation is consistent with his or her claimed reasons for medical leave. Only when an employer is privy to such information regarding the employer’s conduct may it consider inconsistencies between the conduct and the claimed reasons for leave when evaluating whether leave has been properly or improperly used. Here, a blanket assumption that the employee’s vacation represented an improper use of leave time and the failure to properly investigate left the MWRA unable to obtain a lesser liquidated damages amount.
While the decision focused on the narrow “honest belief” exception to liquidated damages in the FMLA, it should remind employers of the importance of objectivity in their investigations. In the context of an FMLA investigation, DaPrato reminds employers to ensure that they avoid decisions that are “honest but unconsciously biased” where, as here, the employer mistakenly believed an employee on FMLA leave could not legitimately take a vacation. Only by satisfying both the good faith and reasonableness requirements—which in this case mandated knowledge of the law surrounding employee use of vacations while on FMLA leaves—could this employer have avoided liquidated damages. Thus, DaPrato should prompt employers to be even more cautious when discharging employees for perceived misconduct and ensure their internal investigations are thorough, fair, and objective