7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on FMLA, ADA and Title VII Claims

On November 20, 2018, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her employer violated the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII").  Riley v. City of Kokomo, Indiana Housing Authority, No. 17-1701 (7th Cir. 11/20/2018).  The plaintiff worked for the Kokomo Housing Authority for eight years before the termination of her employment.  During her employment, the plaintiff suffered from various disabilities, which required her to take leaves of absence.  She alleged that the housing authority improperly denied her requests for medical leave and retaliated against her for those requests by disciplining and terminating her, in violation of the FMLA.  She further alleged that the housing authority failed to provide her with reasonable accommodations for her disabilities and discriminated as well as retaliated against her in violation of the ADA.  She also claimed that she was subjected to retaliation for engaging in protected activity in violation of Title VII.

The plaintiff claimed that the housing authority improperly interfered with her ability to take FMLA leave, and disciplined as well as terminated her in retaliation for exercising her right to FMLA leave.  To establish a claim for FMLA interference, an employee must prove that: (1) she was eligible for the FMLA's protections; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave; and (5) her employer denied FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.  To establish an FMLA retaliation claim, an employee must prove that: (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer subjected her to adverse employment action; and (3) the protected activity caused the adverse job action.  The 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff failed to present evidence sufficient for a reasonable jury to find in her favor on her FMLA claims.  The decision-maker had already made the decision to terminate the plaintiff before she requested FMLA leave.  Therefore, no reasonable jury could find that she was terminated because of her FMLA leave request, or that the housing authority acted to interfere with her FMLA leave at the time that the termination decision was made.  The plaintiff also claimed that the housing authority retaliated against her for earlier exercises of her right to FMLA leave that occurred before the termination decision.  She alleged that the housing authority retaliated against her in this instance by disciplining her with a written warning for alleged misconduct, after she requested and took FMLA leave.  However, the timing of five months between the end of her FMLA leave and the written warning, in and of itself, was insufficient.  A plaintiff must ordinarily present other evidence of retaliation, in addition to temporal proximity between the protected activity and adverse job action, such as evidence that the employer's proffered reason for the adverse job action was pretext for retaliation.  But the plaintiff offered no evidence that the written warning was pretext for retaliation, or any other evidence of retaliation, and, therefore, her FMLA disciplinary retaliation claim failed.

The plaintiff also appealed the district court's determination that her ADA reasonable accommodation claim was beyond the scope of her EEOC charge.  An ADA plaintiff, or any employment discrimination plaintiff who intends to file a lawsuit in federal court, must first file a charge with the EEOC, before and as an administrative prerequisite to filing a lawsuit against an employer in federal court.  A plaintiff is barred from raising a claim in the district court that had not been raised in her EEOC charge, unless the claim is reasonably related to the EEOC charge and can be expected to develop from an investigation into the charges actually raised.  An ADA failure to accommodate claim is separate and distinct from a claim of disability discrimination under the ADA.  The two types of claims are analyzed differently under the law.  Therefore, they are not like or reasonably related to one another, and one cannot expect a failure to accommodate claim to develop from an investigation into a claim that an employee was terminated because of a disability.  The plaintiff's ADA failure to accommodate claim, which she filed in her federal lawsuit, was barred because she did not raise it in her EEOC charge, which was limited to her ADA disability discrimination claim, that she was terminated because of her disabilities.  

The plaintiff's ADA discrimination as well as her ADA and Title VII retaliation claims also failed.  She did not present evidence that would support a claim that the housing authority acted with discriminatory or retaliatory intent.  She claimed that the housing authority discriminated and retaliated against her by issuing the written warning and subsequently terminating her.  But the five-month span between her request for disability leave and the written warning, given the undisputed fact that the decision to terminate her employment occurred before she requested time off, without other evidence, was insufficient to raise an inference of retaliation.  She also failed to present any evidence of disparate treatment or pretext.  And there was no evidence that the supervisor she claimed harbored a discrimination animus against her took part in the termination decision.