- A school district interfered with a worker's rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave, the 7th Cir. has ruled (Valdivia v. Township High School District 214 No. 19-1410 (7th Cir. Nov. 12, 2019)).
- Noemi Valdivia was administrative assistant an Illinois high school until she began experiencing "severe psychological problems." She sued the district under the FMLA, claiming that it interfered with her rights under the federal law by not providing her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave. A jury awarded her $12,000 in damages.
- The school district argued that Valdivia had not provided enough notice. The appeals court disagreed. Valdivia met with her boss several times to report her worsening mental health, describing "in detail" her symptoms and twice asking for an accommodation. In addition, Valdivia began showing up late for work "because she could not drag herself out of bed" and leaving work early because "she could not control her crying." There was enough evidence to support the jury's finding that Valdivia had a serious health condition and a reasonable jury could find that she was unable to perform her job, the court said.
Under the FMLA, it is unlawful for an employer to "interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of, or the attempt to exercise" the rights provided by the federal law, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals noted. While the Americans with Disabilities Act allows employers to choose among any effective accommodation, the FMLA does not grant such flexibility. Employees generally must be permitted to take FMLA leave to which they are entitled.
Previous court decisions have found FMLA interference by employers. Last year, a court denied summary judgment for an employer that denied an employee's request for intermittent leave and instead placed him on continuous leave, for example. But interference can extend beyond leave approvals, too: An employer interfered with an employee's FMLA rights when its leave administrator delayed his return to work by a month, a federal district court ruled last year, granting summary judgment for the plaintiff.
To avoid these scenarios, HR professionals should make sure to train supervisors and managers on the FMLA's requirements, including equipping them with the ability to recognize requests, escalate them to HR and avoid any statements or actions that could discourage an employee from taking leave.