Labor & Employment Law Daily Teacher who gave birth at end of school year can’t use statutory paid leave when school restarts
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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Teacher who gave birth at end of school year can’t use statutory paid leave when school restarts

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

Because medical certification was necessary for paid leave after an absence of 3 days for illness “or 30 days before birth,” the Illinois Supreme Court found that interpreting the statute to allow the teacher to receive paid leave after the summer break would lead to “absurd results.”

A teacher who gave birth at the end of the school year in early June, and was denied her request to use statutory paid leave at the beginning of the new school year in mid-August, failed to revive her lawsuit seeking declaratory relief. Affirming summary judgment against her claim, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the school district did not violate the school code’s allowance of 30 days of accrued sick leave for the “birth” of a child. Once the six-week period immediately following birth had lapsed, the teacher could not use her paid sick days for “birth” unless she provided a physician’s certificate, as set forth in the statute. Justice Karmeier filed a separate opinion specifically concurring, in which Justice Kilbride joined, and Justices Garman and Theis concurred in the judgment (Dynak v. Board of Education of Wood Dale School District 7, April 16, 2020, Burke, A.).

Denied paid sick days at start of new school year. The teacher gave birth on June 6, the day before the school year ended and was allowed to use 1.5 days of her accumulated paid sick leave (for June 6 and 7). The school district also granted her 12 weeks of FMLA leave beginning on August 18, the first day of the new school year. However, it denied her request to use accumulated paid sick leave for the first 28.5 days of her FMLA leave.

Lawsuit tossed on summary judgment. The teacher brought this lawsuit against the school district seeking a declaratory judgment that she was allowed to use the 28.5 days of paid sick leave. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the district and a divided appeals court affirmed. The Illinois Supreme granted her petition for leave to appeal, and also allowed amicus curiae brief from the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois Association of School Boards and Illinois Association of School Administrators.

Statutory leave. At issue was section 24-6 of the Illinois School Code, which allows certain full-time teachers to accrue and accumulate sick leave each school year. According to the statutory text, “Sick leave shall be interpreted to mean personal illness, quarantine at home, serious illness or death in the immediate family or household, or birth, adoption, or placement for adoption.” The section also provides that, without certification, leave due to personal illness was limited to three days and leave for birth was “limited to 30 days.” unless otherwise negotiated.

On appeal, the teacher argued the intervening summer break should not affect her right use accumulated paid sick leave at the beginning of the new school year. In particular, she contended that there was no explicit temporal limitation in the statute for paid sick leave in connection with a birth, arguing that the statute does not specify that paid sick leave for birth must be continuous, when it must begin, or whether it must be completed within a certain amount of time after birth.

Temporal connection. The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed. Section 24-6 expressly limits a teacher’s right to use paid sick leave for birth. By its plain terms, the statute includes “birth” in its list of events triggering a teacher’s right to use such leave, further stating that a medical certificate is required “as a basis for pay during leave after an absence of 3 days for personal illness or 30 days for birth.” This 30-day (or approximately six workweek) requirement only makes sense if the legislature intended paid sick leave to follow immediately after the birth.

This reading of the statute was “further reinforced” when considering that birth was listed in a group with other events that qualified for paid sick leave. And the only reasonable way to interpret the allowance of sick leave for “personal illness, quarantine at home, or serious illness or death in the immediate family or household” was that the sick leave must be “contemporaneous” with the event. The text did not show that the legislature “intended to create a vested right in an employee to take paid sick leave on any days the employee chooses.”

Didn’t intend “absurd” result. Moreover, applying the teacher’s proposed reading of the statute would lead to “absurd results,” such as allowing a teacher to use paid sick leave at the start of the school year to make up for the days lost to illness or family death during the summer break. Her proposed construction would also allow a sick teacher to choose to come to work while sick, then take paid sick leave on future days when she is healthy, another “absurd” result.

The court also pointed out that her proposed construction of the statute would disconnect the qualifying event from the sick leave, which was contrary to the plain statutory language. “In the same way that sick leave for illness may not be disconnected in time from the illness, sick leave for birth may not be disconnected in time from the birth.”

The “most reasonable and consistent reading of the statute” was that it allowed use of accumulated paid sick leave at the time of the qualifying event and not at a later time at the teacher’s discretion. Therefore, the court held that “under section 24-6, teachers may use up to 30 days of accumulated paid sick leave during the six-week period immediately following the birth. Once that six-week period has elapsed, a teacher may not use her paid sick days for birth unless he or she provides a physician’s certificate as set forth in the statute.”

No deprivation of benefits. The state’s high court was unpersuaded by the teacher’s assertion that its ruling unjustly deprived her of earned sick leave solely based on the time of year when she gave birth. A teacher who gives birth at the end of the school year will not have to use her accumulated sick days and can save them for another future qualifying event or receive credit for them at retirement. Thus, there is no unfair deprivation of benefits.

Special concurrence. Justice Karmeier filed a separate opinion specifically concurring, in which Justice Kilbride joined. The justices agreed that section 24-6 limits a teacher’s use of sick leave for birth to the six-week period that follows the teacher’s initial use of such sick leave, but found that sick leave for birth requires a “reasonable temporal connection to birth” and should not be constrained to “immediately following birth.” Rather, the section should have been interpreted as allowing a teacher to take sick leave for birth before the birth occurs where appropriate, such as for doctor-ordered bed rest.

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