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Federal Court Explains What Constitutes FMLA Interference

On Behalf of | Feb 22, 2018 |

An Illinois federal district court, in Hall v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, has determined that an employer may have interfered with a teacher’s FMLA rights when it requested that she provide a lesson plan and post grades while on FMLA leave. However, the court found that the employer’s request for a second medical opinion before approving her leave request did not constitute FMLA interference and that her subsequent termination was not illegal retaliation.

Law. FMLA provides employees with two types of causes of action against employers. First, its “retaliation” provisions prohibit employers from discharging or discriminating against employees for “opposing any practice made unlawful” by the FMLA.  Second, the FMLA’s “interference” provisions make it unlawful for any employer to interfere with,  restrain, or deny the exercise of, or the attempt to exercise, any right provided by the FMLA.

Examples of FMLA interfering with the exercise of an employee’s FMLA right include refusing to authorize FMLA leave and discouraging an employee from using such leave. Nevertheless, FMLA allows an employer to require that an employee provide a second medical opinion before approving a request for FMLA leave.

Background. In Hall, the plaintiff was a writing coach for the Chicago Public Schools. As part of her duties, she was required to create a curriculum and writing program for her students to follow. A newly-hired principal for the school became concerned with the plaintiff’s performance and reassigned her to a classroom teaching position.

After several years of receiving acceptable reviews, the plaintiff received an unsatisfactory rating from the principal, and she was required to go through a remediation plan. However, the plaintiff did not cooperate with the remediation plan, which included classroom observations by the principal. The principal continued to give the plaintiff unsatisfactory performance ratings and explained that she would seek the plaintiff’s termination. The plaintiff was subsequently suspended and ultimately fired.

During the relevant period, the plaintiff took two FMLA leaves of absence. When she requested FMLA leave for a third time, the employer requested that the plaintiff provide a second medical opinion. The plaintiff provided the second opinion and her FMLA leave was retroactively approved. During this leave period, the principal contacted the plaintiff multiple times to request that she provide lesson plans and post student grades. The plaintiff also claimed that the principal subjected her to unfair deadlines when she returned to work.

Following her termination, the plaintiff sued the employer, claiming that the principal had interfered with her FMLA leave rights by contesting her medical certification and requesting a second opinion, and by contacting her to request that she complete work during her leave. The plaintiff also claimed that the employer had suspended and fired her in retaliation for her taking FMLA leave.

District Court. In reviewing the matter, the district court first dismissed the portion of the plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim related to the employer’s request for a second opinion because FMLA authorizes such requests. As to the employer’s contacts with the plaintiff during her third period of FMLA leave, the district court found that the principal may have “crossed the line into interference” by requesting that the plaintiff perform work, including providing lesson plans and posting grades.

The district court next reviewed the plaintiff’s FMLA retaliation claim and determined that evidence provided by the employer confirmed that it terminated her without any retaliatory motive. The district court observed that the plaintiff had received unsatisfactory performance reviews and had refused to participate in the remediation process. Moreover, the district court noted that the principal had given favorable reviews to other teachers who had taken FMLA leave. Accordingly, the district court concluded that the employer took all of the steps required under applicable law before terminating the plaintiff and dismissed the plaintiff’s FMLA retaliation claim.