7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment on FMLA and ADA Claims

On March 7, 2018, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of the defendant, employer in a lawsuit in which the plaintiff, former employee alleged that her former employer interfered with her right to take a leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), discriminated against her on the basis of her disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation for her disabilities, in violation of the ADA, and unlawfully retaliated against her for exercising her rights under the FMLA and ADA.  Guzman v. Brown County, No. 16-3599 (7th Cir. 3/7/2018).  The FMLA provides eligible employees who have serious health conditions with the right to take unpaid leave for up to 12 workweeks during each 12 month period.  The FMLA also makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with an employee's attempt to exercise his or her FMLA rights, or to retaliate against an employee for exercising his or her FMLA rights.

To succeed on an FMLA interference claim, an employee must establish that: (1) she was eligible for FMLA protection; (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 her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.  An employee is entitled to FMLA leave if: (1) she has a serious health condition; and (2) the condition renders her unable to perform the functions of her job.  The FMLA defines a serious health condition as an illness, injury, impairment, or physical or mental condition that involves inpatient care in a hospital, hospice, or residential medical care facility, or continuing treatment by a health care provider.  In this case the 7th Circuit concluded that the plaintiff failed to introduce any evidence to establish that she suffered from a serious health condition under the FMLA.  She also failed to identify evidence to establish that she provide adequate notice of her need for FMLA leave.  An employee must give 30 days' notice of the need for leave unless the need for leave is not known in advance, in which case the employee must give notice as soon as practicable.  In addition, the termination decision was made before the decision-maker had any knowledge that she had requested FMLA leave or believed she had a serious health condition.  Therefore, the plaintiff could not establish that she was denied FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.  The plaintiff's FMLA retaliation claim also failed.  To prevail on an FMLA retaliation claim, a plaintiff must prove that she was subjected to an adverse employment action that occurred because she requested or took FMLA leave.  In this case, the plaintiff could not establish the required causal link between her requests for FMLA leave and her employment termination, since the decision-maker was unaware of her leave request when he made the termination decision.

The ADA prohibits an employer from discriminating against a qualified individual with a disability.  The plaintiff must establish that: (1) she is a person with a disability within the meaning of the ADA; (2) she is qualified to perform the essential functions of her job with or without a reasonable accommodation; and (3) she suffered from an adverse employment decision as a result of her disability.  The plaintiff failed to identify any evidence that an adverse employment action occurred as a result of her alleged disability.  She did not produce any evidence that the decision-maker knew that she suffered from a disability prior to his termination decision.  To the contrary, the evidence indicated that she was discharged due to her chronic tardiness, in violation of company policy.  An employee's violation of a workplace rule, even if it is caused by a disability, is no defense to disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.  Thus, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate that her termination was a result of her disability.  To prevail on an ADA failure to accommodate claim, a plaintiff must demonstrate that: (1) she is a qualified individual with a disability; (2) her employer was aware of her disability; and (3) her employer failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.  Generally, an employer is not obligated to accommodate an employee's disability until the employee informs the employer of the existence of the disability and requests an accommodation.  There was no evidence that the defendant was aware of the employee's disability.  The undisputed evidence established that she was terminated based on her chronic tardiness.  After the fact requests for accommodation do not excuse past misconduct.  Thus, the plaintiff's failure to accommodate claim also failed.  Lastly, to establish an ADA disability retaliation claim, a plaintiff must produce evidence demonstrating that: (1) she engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there is a causal connection between the two.  Since it was undisputed that the decision-maker was unaware of the accommodation request when he made the termination decision, the plaintiff could not establish the required causal connection between her accommodation requests and her employment termination.  None of the plaintiff's FMLA or ADA claims survived summary judgment.