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Church School May Have Violated Dismissed Teacher's Rights under Family and Medical Leave Act

Key point 8-14.1. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers with at least 15 employees, and that are engaged in interstate commerce, from discriminating in any employment decision against a qualified individual with a disability who is able, with or without reasonable accommodation from the employer, to perform the essential functions of the job. Accommodations that impose an undue hardship upon an employer are not required. Religious organizations may give preference to nondisabled members of their faith over disabled persons who are members of a different faith.
Key point 8-15. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires employers with 50 or more employees and engaged in interstate commerce to allow employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year on account of certain medical and family needs. There is no exemption for religious organizations.
Key point 8-20. Several federal and state laws require certain employers to display workplace posters in order to inform employees of their rights. Some poster requirements apply to religious organizations, while others do not. Even those that do often require modification to avoid confusion.

A federal district court in Louisiana ruled that a church school had not violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in dismissing a teacher, but may have violated the Family and Medical Leave Act. A woman (the "plaintiff") was employed as a teacher at a church school for 14 years. Like all teachers at the school, she was employed on an annual basis pursuant to an employment contract. During the end of the 2011-2012 academic year, she met with the school principal to discuss goals for the upcoming year. One of the plaintiff's "major goals" was a "health goal" that included seeing a doctor about her weight loss issues (she suffered from anorexia nervosa).

In July 2012, the plaintiff emailed the preschool's vice principal to inquire about sick leave so she could receive medical attention for her eating disorder. The vice principal informed her that she had 17 sick days plus accrued vacation leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was not referred to by either the plaintiff or the vice principal. The plaintiff began her sick leave in August of 2012 to seek treatment for her eating disorder.

A few months later, the plaintiff received "return to work" releases and returned to work in October. Her nutritionist "cautiously agreed" to allow her to return to work and noted that the release came with "strict guidelines." Similarly, the plaintiff's counselor provided her with a release subject to various conditions.

The day after she returned to work, the plaintiff had an appointment with her nutritionist, who indicated that she was "below expectation" in meeting the required goals for her release to work. During an appointment with her counselor a few days later, the plaintiff was informed that her medical team was discontinuing her treatment because she still continued to lose weight. The plaintiff did not return to work after her appointment, and her employment was terminated.

The plaintiff sued the school claiming that it committed violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and FMLA. The school asked the court to dismiss all claims.

ADA

The plaintiff claimed that the school violated the ADA by terminating her employment before discussing reasonable accommodations and without providing her with sufficient notice of her rights under the ADA.

The court conceded that discrimination under the ADA includes an employer's failure to make "reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability unless such covered entity can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship." An employee's failure to request accommodation precludes a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA.

The plaintiff admitted that she did not consider herself to be disabled, and so she "has not established that she is a qualified individual with a disability." Further, the court noted that the plaintiff never asked for an accommodation. Therefore, "because she has shown neither that she is an individual with a disability nor that she requested an accommodation, she has failed to establish a case of failure to accommodate under the ADA."

The plaintiff also claimed that the school violated her rights under the ADA by failing to post notices explaining her rights under the ADA. The court, in dismissing this argument, concluded: "Federal law requires every employer to post notices describing the provisions of the ADA. These notices are to be posted in 'conspicuous places.' There is, however, no private cause of action to enforce the posting requirements."

FMLA

The FMLA, which applies to employers with 50 or more employees, entitles an eligible employee to take up to 12 work weeks of leave in a 12-month period when the employee has a serious health condition that makes her unable to perform the duties of her position. After a qualifying absence, the employer must restore the employee to the same position previously held by the employee before taking leave under the FMLA.

The plaintiff claimed that the school violated the FMLA by failing to inform her of the amount of leave that she had available and the procedure to apply for available leave. The court stressed that "there are no magic words required of an employee to take leave under the FMLA," and that the FMLA "does not require an employee to invoke the language of the statute to gain its protection when notifying her employer of her need for leave for a serious health condition." An employee need only "provide her employer with enough information that would reasonably apprise the employer of the employee's request to take time off for a serious health condition." The court concluded:

The school was familiar with the plaintiff's medical condition and was also aware that discharge from treatment by her medical team would prevent her from working. The court finds these communications sufficient to create a genuine dispute as to a material fact as to whether she provided adequate notice that she was planning to take qualifying leave under the FMLA … . In all circumstances, it is the employer's responsibility to designate leave, paid or unpaid, as FMLA-qualifying, and to give notice of the designation to the employee … . Once the employer has acquired knowledge that the leave is being taken for an FMLA required reason, the employer must promptly … notify the employee that the paid leave is designated and will be counted as FMLA leave.

The plaintiff asserted that she was unaware of her rights under FMLA since the school had failed to display FMLA posters. But the school principal insisted that there were FMLA notices posted throughout the school. However, she acknowledged that the plaintiff never received individualized notice of her leave time available under the FMLA. As a result, the court denied the school's motion to dismiss the FMLA claim.

What This Means For Churches:

This case illustrates three important points.

First, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which applies to employers with 15 or more employees, imposes upon employers a duty to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees, but this requirement does not apply to employees who do not request them.

Second, the failure of an employer subject to the ADA to display posters informing employees of their rights under the Act does not give employees a claim to monetary damages.

Third, here are three points to note about FMLA: (1) It is a federal statute that only applies to employers with 50 or more employees. As a result, it does not apply to most churches. (2) Employees can trigger their rights under the FMLA without referring to the Act. All that is required is that an employee provide an employer with enough information that would "reasonably apprise the employer of the employee's request to take time off for a serious health condition." In some cases, the employer may not understand that FMLA leave is being requested. (3) The FMLA requires covered employers to display a poster informing employees of their rights under the Act, but it also requires employers to provide employees with individualized notice of the potential availability of unpaid leave under FMLA. Bernard v. Episcopal Day School, 2014 WL 5342582 (W.D. La. 2014).

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Posted:
  • February 23, 2016

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