Claim that supervisor used unsubstantiated drug charge to oust employee who sought FMLA leave advances
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Monday, June 18, 2018

Claim that supervisor used unsubstantiated drug charge to oust employee who sought FMLA leave advances

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

Refusing to dismiss an employee’s FMLA retaliation claims against his employer and two supervisors individually, a federal district court in Illinois found that he plausibly alleged that his supervisors used unsubstantiated drug charges as an opportunity to suspend him indefinitely and effectively discharge him in retaliation for his request for intermittent leave due to mental disorders. His ADA retaliation claim only advanced against the employer (Hansen v. Central Management Services, June 12, 2018, Schanzle-Haskins, T.).

The employee worked for Central Management Services (CMS), a state agency, from 1990 through October 14, 2016, most recently as a systems analyst. He suffers from bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. In April 2016, he requested FMLA leave to be tardy or absent as necessary due to his mental disorders and treatment for them. CMS approved his requests for accommodation and, according to the employee, he continued to perform his job satisfactorily.

Supervisors’ alleged harassment. However, when the employee filed his requests, his immediate supervisor allegedly “stepped out of his office to the central work area of my unit and to the other employees loudly cursed at me and proceeded to reprimand me throughout the day.” The employee complained to his union rep and the supervisor was disciplined. Thereafter, he allegedly held the employee to a higher standard than others and “aggressively continued his harassment.” The next level supervisor also allegedly harassed him.

Drug charges. On August 11, 2016, the employee’s girlfriend drove him to work in a car he had rented. After he was dropped off, the girlfriend was stopped by police, who searched her backpack and found illegal drugs, drug paraphernalia, and an empty prescription bottle with the employee’s name on it. Police came to his workplace to question him, found nothing on his person, but nonetheless arrested him after he said he wanted to speak to an attorney. He was charged with possession of drugs and paraphernalia but the charges were later dropped.

Unemployment. On September 12, CMS suspended the employee indefinitely for violating rules and policies by possessing illegal drugs and paraphernalia. He claimed that his two supervisors concocted the drug possession story to harass him for asserting his ADA and FMLA rights. When he sought unemployment benefits, the employer took the position that he was fired for cause, but an administrative law judge concluded otherwise in May 2017.

FMLA retaliation proceeds against all defendants. Refusing to dismiss the employee’s FMLA retaliation claim, the court found that he sufficiently pleaded that CMS and his supervisors took actions against him that would dissuade a reasonable person from engaging in protected activity under the Act. According to the complaint, after he requested FMLA leave to accommodate his mental condition, his direct supervisor allegedly cursed him out in front of coworkers and both supervisors began harassing him on a daily basis, ultimately arranging his discharge. Though the defendants argued that he didn’t allege he was fired, the court disagreed and pointed out that they took the position in his unemployment proceedings that he was fired for cause. And though he said he left voluntarily, he may have only meant he left without a fight when he was suspended indefinitely.

ADA claim proceeds against CMS, not supervisors. The same allegations were also sufficient to support the employee’s ADA claims against the employer. That said, the court explained that the supervisors could not be held liable under the ADA. “The FMLA contains a different, broader definition of employer,” noted the court, and includes “any person who acts, directly or indirectly, in the interests of any employer.” Thus, individual supervisors could be liable under the FMLA. In contrast, the ADA definition of “employer” tracks the definition of Title VII and includes only the actual employer, not individuals. Consequently, the motion to dismiss was granted on the ADA claims against the two supervisors.

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