Posts Tagged ‘qualified immunity’

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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