Michigan School Superintendent Fails on FMLA Claims

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By Patrick Dorrian

A former schools superintendent who says she was forced out after missing about 12 weeks of work for hip-replacement surgery and to help her ill, elderly mom didn’t show that a Michigan school board violated her rights under U.S. family and medical leave law, a federal appeals court affirmed.

The March 12 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is a reminder that workers seeking to prove they were forced out of a job in violation of federally protected employment rights face a heavy burden. Workers are typically expected to remain in their job unless the situation has truly become intolerable and may not quit based on a belief that things are bad already and are bound to get worse, the court said.

“Constructive discharge is hard to prove,” Judge Amul R. Thapar wrote, referring to the law’s term for when a worker is forced to quit. Joan Groening couldn’t show the actions of Glen Lake Community Schools left her no choice but to resign, so she couldn’t establish a triable retaliation claim under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the judge said.

One board member said he was concerned about Groening’s infrequent attendance of board meetings during her leave, requiring the board to work around her schedule. The board president commented that he planned to hold Groening accountable for her missed time in her next job review.

But Groening didn’t learn of the latter remark until after she resigned, so it couldn’t have spurred her resignation, Thapar said. And the Sixth Circuit has repeatedly held that employer criticisms of a worker’s actions don’t rise to the level of a constructive discharge, the judge said.

Groening also said the board’s decision to audit the district’s business office to ensure that administrators’ time off was being properly tracked was the final straw in her deciding she could no longer remain a school district employee. But employers may investigate employees of suspected wrongdoing, even if it relates to protected family or medical leave, the court said. That such investigations may create an “inherent tension” between the employer and the employee doesn’t mean the worker may conclude she is legally compelled to quit, the court said.

FMLA Interference Claims Fail, Too

Groening also argued that the school board’s conduct interfered with her rights under the FMLA in two ways: by conducting the audit with the plan to give her a negative performance review; and by requiring her to work—attend board meetings—while on leave.

Again, the board’s decision to do an audit didn’t amount to an adverse employment action, and Groening resigned before the planned performance review ever took place, the court said. Groening only cited one instance when the board required her to work while she was on leave—when it asked her for a breakdown of the leave time she had used. That wasn’t substantial enough to rise to the level of actionable interference under the FMLA, the court said.

Judges Damon J. Keith and Raymond M. Kethledge joined the opinion.

Eardley Law Offices represented Groening. Kluczynski, Girtz & Vogelzang represented the school board.

The case is Groening v. Glen Lake Cmty. Sch., 6th Cir., No. 17-1848, summary judgment affirmed 3/12/18.

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