Pension & Benefits News Lack of adverse action or causation dooms teacher’s FMLA retaliation claim
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Friday, June 7, 2019

Lack of adverse action or causation dooms teacher’s FMLA retaliation claim

By Pension and Benefits Editorial Staff

An elementary school teacher who took leave under the FMLA and claimed various acts of retaliation as a result did not provide evidence that she suffered an adverse employment action or to establish causation in order to satisfy the elements of a prima facie case, a federal court in Minnesota held. The court granted summary judgment for the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and the school principal, dismissing the teacher’s FMLA retaliation claims as well as her state-law whistleblower and §1983 claims.

The teacher had worked for MPS since the early 1980s and her present school since 2012, where she served as building steward for the teachers’ union. The teacher’s claims were based entirely on events from the 2015-16 school year when a series of "health challenges" befell her and her family. Those challenges caused her to miss several days in September and October 2015, before she sought FMLA leave.

Due process meetings. In late September, after receiving complaints from parents, the principal held a due process meeting with the teacher to communicate those complaints and come up with a response plan. When parents continued to complain about teacher communication and the lack of a consistent teacher presence in the classroom, the teacher and principal held another due process meeting in early October, during which the absences were discussed. Shortly thereafter, the teacher applied and was approved for intermittent FMLA leave.

Two months later, in December 2018, the principal received a complaint that the teacher did not comply with a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), and thus held another due process meeting. The meeting resulted in a "notice of concern," which the teacher perceived as disciplinary.

Later that week, in her capacity as union steward, the teacher facilitated a meeting between the principal and staff concerning complaints about the principal’s management of the building and treatment of staff. Though the teacher felt that the principal was angry at her about this meeting, the teacher never initiated a formal grievance or brought her concerns to anyone at the school district.

FMLA leave. In January 2016, the teacher suffered several injuries in a car accident and was approved for FMLA leave effective January 20 through April 20. When she returned from leave, her doctor approved her to work only Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and she was administratively reassigned to a "Reserve on Special Assignment (ROSA)" position, which the teacher understood to be a substitute teacher role. This reassignment did not affect her salary or benefits, and she was eligible to interview for a more permanent assignment the following year.

The MPS, however, accused the teacher of leaving her classroom a mess when moving her belongings out (although non-party testimony was conflicting on whether she had, in fact, done so) and placed her on administrative leave in April pending an investigation. Another due process meeting was held, at which MPS determined that she had failed to leave her classroom in proper condition and suspended her for five days, in June.

After the 2015-16 school year, the teacher continued to work at MPS. She completed that year on ROSA status, then went through the placement process for the next school year. She obtained a teaching job at a different elementary school and continues to hold a full-time position, but at a different school.

FMLA retaliation. The teacher first contended that she had direct evidence of FMLA discrimination and retaliation. But the only evidence she identified was temporal proximity: her five-day suspension occurred while she was on FMLA leave. But as the court noted, temporal proximity alone is usually not sufficient direct evidence. Therefore, the court applied the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis to her claim, requiring that she provide evidence of: (1) protected activity; (2) a materially adverse employment action; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and adverse action. While there was no dispute she satisfied the first element, the court held that she couldn’t meet the second and third.

The teacher identified six actions that she claimed were adverse: the three due process meetings, an email "reprimand" she received from the principal instructing her not to communicate with school staff while on leave, her five-day unpaid suspension, and the emotional damages she suffered as a result of the defendants’ conduct. While MPS conceded that the unpaid suspension was an adverse employment action, the court found that, as a matter of law, the other events were not. None qualified as a material employment disadvantage under Eighth Circuit law, since none affected her grade, pay, benefits, or job duties. The emotional distress may have been evidence of damages, but did not itself constitute an adverse employment action, the court also held.

The causation element also was lacking. Again, all the teacher cited was the temporal proximity between her FMLA leave and five-day suspension. But the gap was more than four months between the beginning of her leave in January 2016 and the issuance of the notice of her suspension in June. Placing her on administrative leave in April did not constitute an adverse employment action.

Minnesota Whistleblower Act. The court also granted summary judgment to MPS on the teacher’s Minnesota Whistleblower Act claim, concluding that no reasonable jury could find that she reported a violation of the law. She identified the FMLA violation, state law protecting public employees’ right to unionize, and the First Amendment, but there was no evidence she reported any alleged violations of those laws to MPS prior to her suspension.

Section 1983. Finally, the teacher contended that MPS and the principal violated her constitutional rights to freedom of association and to be free from a hostile work environment. But because MPS is a governmental entity, she needed to identify a MPS policy, custom, or practice that was the motivating force behind the alleged violation of her rights. She failed to do so, the court held. She identified no policy and at oral argument her lawyer conceded he was unaware of any such policy.

The teacher’s claim against the principal individually failed because she did not even attempt to allege that she was subject to a hostile work environment based on race or sex. Her claim that the principal’s workplace bullying was so severe that it was obviously and inevitably destined to cause the teacher harm was too much of an expansion of substantive due process for the court to countenance.

SOURCE: Eilen v. Minneapolis Public Schools (D. Minn.), No. 0:17-cv-04388-ECT-DTS, April 10, 2019.

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