Seventh Circuit Rules That Discouraging An Employee From Taking FMLA Leave Is Actionable

Courts have routinely found that interference claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) encompass acts beyond that of a traditional discrimination/retaliation claim that requires an adverse employment action (termination, demotion, suspension, etc.). Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed this position.

Terrence Preddie was employed as a schoolteacher in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation in Columbus, Indiana. During the 2010-11 school year, Mr. Preddie missed a number of days due to his own health issues (many of which were related to his diabetes) and those of his son who suffers from Sickle Cell disease. According to Mr. Preddie, his absences became a topic of discussion between himself and Dr. Diane Clancy, the principal at the school in which Mr. Preddie taught. Mr. Preddie testified that Dr. Clancy made multiple comments to him regarding his absences, including letting him know that he could not take any more time off and that “Sickle Cell wasn’t a serious enough disease” to warrant additional time off because Mr. Preddie’s absences were affecting his classroom. According to Mr. Preddie, these comments caused him to cease missing days of work in order to care for his son because he believed there would be repercussions for any additional absences.

Shortly after one of these conversations between Mr. Preddie and Dr. Clancy, Dr. Clancy gave Mr. Preddie his second semester performance report. According to the Seventh Circuit: “In contrast to his first-semester performance report, Dr. Clancy assessed Mr. Preddie as ‘Need[ing] Improvement’ in all evaluation categories for the second semester. Dr. Clancy also recommended that Mr. Preddie’s contract not be renewed for the 2011–2012 school year.” A short time later, the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation school board voted not to renew Mr. Preddie’s contract on a number of bases, including “[a]ttendance is affecting student progress.”

In analyzing Mr. Preddie’s FMLA claims, the Court noted the following with respect to an FMLA interference claim: “The implementing regulations make clear that the ways in which an employer may interfere with FMLA benefits are not limited simply to the denial of leave. Interference also encompasses ‘us[ing] the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions’ and ‘discouraging an employee from using such leave.’”

The Court then found not only that “there is evidence from which a jury could conclude that the [Bartholomew Consolidated School Corporation] ‘interfere[d]’ with Mr. Preddie’s rights by ‘us[ing] the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in employment actions,’” but also that a jury could conclude Mr. Preddie was discouraged from incurring additional absences related to FMLA-qualifying health conditions and that Dr. Clancy’s comments had an adverse affect on Mr. Preddie’s decisions regarding leave. Thus, the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of Mr. Preddie’s FMLA interference claims and remanded those claims to the District Court for trial.