Posts Tagged ‘Family Medical Leave Act’

The U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Pennsylvania recently held that a first-grade teacher sufficiently stated a claim against Red Lion Area School District for violating her right Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) rights.

The case involves a teacher at Clearview Elementary School who suffers from Chron’s disease, a condition that sometimes caused her to arrive late to work.  In 2011, the teacher requested an accommodation for her condition and the HR director asked the teacher to have her physician fill out a FMLA form to determine her eligibility.  The teacher completed the forms and returned them to the HR director but he allegedly failed to further address her FMLA eligibility.  Thereafter, the teacher received her first unsatisfactory performance review in her five year tenure with the school and she was suspended.

Several months later, the teacher again requested an accommodation and a determination of her FMLA eligibility.  The school district decided to accommodate the teacher by permitting her to inform the school of required morning accommodations for flare-ups associated with her medical condition.  Nonetheless, despite granting the teacher this accommodation, the School District criticized her for using the accommodation and disciplined her for late arrivals, tardiness, and absences.  In response, the teacher once again submitted FMLA forms, but was never informed of her rights regarding FMLA leave.

Next, according to the teacher, the school district began to scrutinize her classroom protocols and teaching methods.  In early 2012, after the teacher’s attorney demanded that the school district grant the teacher’s leave request, intermittent FMLA leave was provided.  A month later, the teacher experienced another flare-up in her condition.  When she arrived to school late, she was allegedly embarrassed by the school principal for using the morning accommodation and intermittent FMLA leave and was suspended for two days without pay.  Moreover, the teacher alleges that the school principal and HR director told other employees about her Crohn’s disease and absences.

The teacher filed suit against the school district, the HR director and the principal alleging, among other things, interference with her FMLA rights and retaliation for exercising her FMLA rights.  The HR director and principal moved to dismiss based on qualified immunity from FMLA liability, but the Middle District of Pennsylvania rejected the principal’s and HR director’s arguments regarding qualified immunity on the basis that government officials are protected from liability only if their conduct does not violate clearly established rights.  Here, the officials conceded that the conduct alleged could show a violation of the FMLA.

 

The court agreed that the teacher sufficiently stated a claim for interference under the FMLA because the officials failed to give her proper notice of her eligibility for leave, placed unreasonable restrictions on her use of leave, discouraged her from using leave by disciplining her for absences, disclosed to co-workers the occasions where she used leave, and did not communicate properly the status of her FMLA requests.  Moreover, the court noted that the teacher had alleged that she was subjected to discipline in close temporal proximity to her request for FMLA leave.

The court went on to say that “it would be a misuse of qualified immunity to apply the doctrine [of qualified immunity] to insulate from suit public employees who, as is the case here, do not dispute that their acts (if proven) would violate a clearly established right but instead only take exception to liability on the basis that responsibility for their conduct should be borne by their own employer alone.”

According to the court, because the teacher’s FMLA rights were clearly established, the officials should have known that the law required them to communicate with her about her rights, and to grant her FMLA leave if medically necessary.

To avoid adverse results such as this, employers should adequately train their officials regarding FMLA obligations.  The attorneys at Harmon & Davies are available to provide such training.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

 

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The passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) provision requiring employers to provide mothers a reasonable break time and private place to express breast milk has created fodder for a few lawsuits, one of which I blogged about not too long ago.  In another recent case (Miller v. Rosche Surety & Cas. Co.), the 11th Circuit, a federal court, held that a female employee who was fired after she sent a company executive an email asking where she could express breast milk, while temporarily working at a different office, did not have a viable retaliation claim under the FLSA because no reasonable jury could interpret her email as a protected complaint.  Allow me to explain:

The FLSA protects employees who engage in protected activity from retaliation by their employers.  A clear example of a protected activity would be a written complaint to an employer informing the employer that the employee believes his/her rights under the FLSA are being infringed upon and calling for protection of those rights, but rarely are complaints to employers so straightforward.  Therefore, to determine whether a complaint constituted a protected activity, the law asks whether a reasonable jury could interpret the complaint as protected activity.  And, according to a Supreme Court ruling in 2011 (Kasten v. Stain-Gobain Performance Plastics Co.) the highest court of our nation has even said that an oral complaint may trigger the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.  However, even an oral complaint has to have some degree of formality in order to give the employer fair notice that an employee is lodging a grievance.  Indeed, a complaint needs to be clear and detailed enough to put a reasonable employer on notice, considering the context and content, that an employee is asserting rights provided by the FLSA and calling for protection of those rights.

In the Miller case, a female employee who worked for a Florida bail bond company simply sent an email to a company executive asking about where she could use her breast pump while working somewhere other than her usual place of work.  The 11th Circuit held that this inquiry could not reasonably be construed as an FLSA complaint because the email did not put the employer on notice that the employee was lodging a grievance.  The 11th Circuit also held that the employee could not raise a triable issue regarding whether the employer violated the FLSA provision that requires employers to provide employees with a private place to express milk because the employee testified that she was given necessary breaks for this purpose and had access to a private place to do so while at her regular office.

Interestingly, the employee cited to a Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) case to support her view than an employee’s “prospective request” that an employer comply with the FLSA is “protected activity” under the act.  However, the 11th Circuit distinguished the FMLA case in which it ruled that an employee’s pre-eligibility request for post-eligibility maternity leave was protected under the FMLA on the basis that the FMLA contains a provision making it unlawful for employers to “interfere with, restrain, or deny” an employee’s exercise, or attempt to exercise, any right provided by the FMLA while the FLSA lacks a comparable provision.

Finally, the employee unsuccessfully argued that because the employer monitored her email communications at work, an email that she sent to a friend under the subject line “Federal Law” that referenced the FLSA provision regarding expressing breast milk was akin to an FLSA complaint. The Court rejected this argument because the employee never showed the email to the employer and never told anyone at her company that she believed the company was violating the provision.  Therefore, the email to the employee’s friend did not effectively notify the company of her grievance.

Lesson for Employers:  Although this case ended well for the employer, employers should take issues surrounding expressing breast milk at work seriously.  In a case such as the one discussed above, the employer, knowing that the employee was pumping at work, might have chosen to proactively inform the employee where she could pump while working at the different location, which effort would have cast the employer in the best light possible.  For large employers, paying attention to the individual needs of each employee might not be possible, but larger employers might be able to designate lactation areas that eliminate the need for employees to inquire about suitable places to pump while visiting other offices or have written express breast milk policies that address how employees should handle pumping away from their regular place of work.  The attorneys at Harmon & Davies are here to assist employers with navigating issues surrounding expressing breast milk at work.

This article is authored by attorney Shannon O. Young and is intended for educational purposes and to give you general information and a general understanding of the law only, not to provide specific legal advice. Any particular questions should be directed to your legal counsel or, if you do not have one, please feel free to contact us.

 

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