The federal Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654 and New Jersey Family Leave Act (“NJFLA”) N.J.S.A. 34:11B-1 et. seq. permits employees to take 12 weeks of protected unpaid leave when they or their immediate family suffer a serious medical condition or for a new born child. This allows the employee to cope and recuperate from such circumstances. Relatedly, an employer cannot punish an employee for taking FMLA or NJFLA leave. Indeed, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit recently ruled that an employee can use his medical leave time off as vacation time, and cannot be fired for doing so, so long as taking such time off does not directly violate an express company policy. In Jones v. Gulf Coast Health Care of Delaware, LLC, 854 F.3d 1261 (11thCir. 2017), the 11th Circuit remanded to the district court to decide whether an employer had subjected his employee to unlawful retaliation by firing him when he did not use his time off within the “spirit” of medical leave – to rehabilitate and recover – and instead vacationed.
In Jones, the employer, Accentia, granted plaintiff Rodney Jones (“Jones”), their Activities Director, 12 weeks of FMLA leave so that he could undergo rotator cuff surgery and fully recover. However, when Jones was scheduled to return, his doctor reported that Jones could not resume physical activity until February 1, 2015. Despite his doctor’s recommendations and his own physical limitations, Jones still wished to return to his job at the end of his FMLA leave. Jones understood his doctor’s report to simply mean that he needed to continue physical therapy, not that he was prohibited from working entirely. Therefore, he asked his supervisor to allow him to return to work on light duty. His requested was denied. In fact, Jones was told he would not be permitted to return to work unless he underwent and passed a fitness-for-duty exam. Because his supervisor was adamant that Jones could not return to work on light duty, Jones did not ask his doctor for a light-duty certification. Jones instead requested additional time off and was granted another 30 days of non-FMLA medical leave to complete his physical therapy.
During the additional leave time, Jones twice visited the Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa Bay, Florida where he spent time walking around and taking pictures of the park’s Christmas decorations. Jones also visited his family in the Caribbean for three days. He posted photos from these trips on his Facebook page, including pictures of himself on the beach, posing by a boat wreck, and in the ocean. When Jones returned to work, his supervisor confronted him with the vacation photos and informed him that “corporate” believed, based on these Facebook posts, Jones had been well enough to return to work without additional leave. Hence, Jones was suspended, and then his employment terminated following an investigation by the company.