Federal Court Upholds Monetary Award Against Illinois School District—Finds that District Had Constructive Notice of Employee’s Need for FMLA Leave

On November 12, 2019, the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a $12,000 jury verdict against an Illinois high school district, concluding that the evidence was sufficient for a reasonable jury to determine that the employee was eligible for FMLA leave and the District interfered with that right.

Noemi Valdivia worked as an assistant to the associate principal at the high school for six years. During that time, she received excellent performance evaluations. Her supervisors described her as “extremely dependable” and an “invaluable resource,” and stated that her work was “immaculate” and “free from error.” The District promoted Valdivia to the position of assistant to the principal at a different high school. Shortly thereafter, Valdivia’s mental state began to deteriorate—she experienced insomnia, weight loss, uncontrollable crying, racing thoughts, an inability to concentrate and exhaustion. She began going into work late because she lacked energy, and leaving early because she could not control her crying. Valdivia met with her principal, Angela Sisi, to discuss her symptoms and indicate that she felt overwhelmed. Valdivia also stated that she had received a job offer.

Valdivia subsequently had multiple conversations with Sisi describing in detail what she was experiencing. At one point, Valdivia asked Sisi for a 10-month position as opposed to her current 12-month position, thinking that time away from the job may help. She also stated that she was considering leaving for medical reasons. Sisi denied the request, ultimately prompting Valdivia to resign and accept the other job offer. Valdivia was able to work only four days before quitting the new job. Valdivia was later hospitalized and diagnosed with major depressive order and generalized anxiety disorder.

Valdivia sued the District, claiming that it interfered with her rights under the FMLA by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave.

There are two particular points of note in the 7th Circuit’s decision upholding the jury verdict against the District. First, Valdivia did not have to be diagnosed during her employment to establish that she had a serious medical condition under the FMLA, so long as the condition existed at the time. The distress she clearly exhibited on the job, supplemented by her medical records, was sufficient. Second, the District was alerted to Valdivia’s health condition and her need for leave, even if she had not specifically requested it. Moreover, Valdivia did not conceal her symptoms—she addressed them directly with Sisi. Under FMLA, constructive notice of an employee’s need for leave is sufficient; the employee need not mention the statute or demand its benefits.

Eligibility and notice requirements under the FMLA remain extremely fact-sensitive inquiries. As this case demonstrates, an employee’s marked change in behavior may be enough to put an employer on notice of his or her need for leave. We urge school districts to approach evaluation of an employee’s eligibility with caution, and to exercise due diligence when investigating the facts.

Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, 942 F.3d 395 (7th Cir. 2019)

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