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A school district director who was reassigned shortly after taking medical leave could go to trial on his Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) claims because his superintendent said that she was "frustrated" that his leave did not begin immediately, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois ruled.
Peoria, Ill., Board of Education District 150 hired Bryan Chumbley as its director of research, testing and assessment in 2005. The position was not tenured and lasted three years, after which time it was renewed annually unless the district gave notice of nonrenewal by April 1 of the final contract year. In March 2010, the district notified Chumbley that it intended to reassign him to a teaching position but then rehired him for the director position as an at-will employee.
One of Chumbley's major duties was managing and administrating a database called "Skyward" that contained confidential information regarding students and employees. As a director, Chumbley had greater access to this database than teachers.
In May 2012, Chumbley told the district's HR director that he was experiencing job-related anxiety. The HR director suggested that Chumbley consider taking FMLA leave rather than resign. Shortly thereafter, Chumbley told the district superintendent, Grenita Lathan, that he was experiencing issues that he felt were impacting his job performance.
On Oct. 2, 2012, Chumbley requested FMLA leave to start on Nov. 1, 2012, and last until Jan. 2, 2013. He stated that he wanted to delay the start of the leave so that he could tie up some loose ends in his department in the meantime.
The board held an executive session on Oct. 9, 2012, during which it discussed Chumbley's FMLA request. At that session, Lathan stated that Chumbley's request was "frustrating" because mental health-related leave usually starts immediately and not one month later. She told the board that she tried to help reduce Chumbley's anxiety and stress by offering to modify his job duties and then repeated that she was frustrated because Chumbley had told people that he was going to take time off beginning in a month. Another board member raised the idea of firing Chumbley before his leave began based on prior work evaluations that showed negative performance issues.
Ultimately, the board approved Chumbley's application for FMLA leave. While Chumbley was on FMLA leave, however, the district learned of two issues that raised concerns about his performance. First, it learned that he had guaranteed payment to a contractor for work done at two district schools without authorization. Chumbley claimed that the district comptroller authorized this guarantee, but the district comptroller denied it.
Second, the district learned that Chumbley had given a teacher "superuser access" to the Skyward database. This access allowed the teacher to see all of the confidential information that was supposed to be viewed only by director-level employees.
Chumbley requested a two-week extension of his FMLA leave shortly before his Jan. 2, 2013, return-to-work date, and the request was granted. When he returned on Jan. 14, 2013, however, his badge did not work and he had to wait until another employee let him in the building. Chumbley reported to Lathan's office, where she and an employee services director told him that he was being placed on administrative leave. On Jan. 25, 2013, the district notified Chumbley that it was reassigning him to a position at the transportation department because of his misconduct discovered during his FMLA leave.
Chumbley brought a federal lawsuit against the district alleging FMLA interference and retaliation and a violation of his due process rights under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. The district filed a motion for summary judgment to dismiss these claims before trial.
The court found that Chumbley presented sufficient evidence of the district's intent to interfere with his FMLA rights in Lathan's statement that she was frustrated with his use of leave. Additionally, the court found that the timing of the district's discipline of Chumbley, which occurred on the very day his FMLA leave was to end, could show that he was reassigned because he used FMLA leave. Thus, the court denied the district summary judgment on Chumbley's FMLA claims.
The court did grant summary judgment, however, on Chumbley's due process claim because his employment was at will and was not guaranteed for any length of time.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Family and Medical Leave]
Chumbley v. Board of Educ. For Peoria Dist. 150, C.D. Ill., No. 14-1238 (Dec. 9, 2016).
Professional Pointer: Employers must be careful about how they discuss employee requests for FMLA leave, even in closed-door meetings. A poorly phrased reference to legitimate concerns about a request can support an employee's FMLA claim.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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