7th Circuit Affirms Summary Judgment in FMLA Lawsuit

On October 20, 2015, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in a federal lawsuit in which the plaintiff alleged that her former employer denied her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act.  Barrett v. Illinois Department of Corrections, No. 13-2833 (7th Cir., 10-20-2015).  The plaintiff was fired from her job due to accumulating a certain amount of unauthorized absences.  She claimed that some of those absences were protected by the FMLA and, therefore, should not have been classified as unauthorized.  She filed suit after she was fired, but more than two years after her requests for FMLA leave were denied.  An FMLA lawsuit must be filed not later than two years after the date of the last event constituting the alleged violation for which the action is brought.  The 7th Circuit held that the alleged FMLA violations occurred, and the limitations period began to run, when the employer denied the employee's requests for FMLA leave and classified the subject absences as unauthorized, not when she was fired years later as a result of her attendance record.  Thus, the FMLA suit was time-barred.

The FMLA makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise any right granted by the FMLA, including the right of an eligible employee to take up to 12 workweeks of leave during any 12-month period for the purpose of family and medical care.  To prove an FMLA claim based on a denial of leave, a plaintiff must establish an impairment of her rights and resulting prejudice.  When an FMLA plaintiff alleges that her employer violated the Act by denying leave, the last event constituting the claim is the employer's rejection of the employee's request for leave.  That's when the 2-year statute of limitations begins to run.

The 7th Circuit distinguished the FMLA from Title VII.  The FMLA provides a benefit to employees.  Title VII prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, and other protected categories.  The FMLA inquiry is whether the employer has provided the employee with the statutory entitlements, regardless of having treated similarly-situated employees equally.  The Title VII inquiry is whether the employer treated one employee worse than another on account of a prohibited classification.  In an FMLA denial-of-benefits claim, the plaintiff is not required to prove unequal treatment or a materially adverse job action.  It should be noted, however, that there is also a claim for FMLA retaliation--where an employee is terminated in retaliation for exercising or attempting to exercise her FMLA rights--which involves a different analysis and requires proof of retaliatory intent.