First Circuit Affirms Ruling That Teacher is Ineligible for FMLA Leave

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First Circuit Affirms Ruling That Teacher is Ineligible for FMLA Leave: McArdle v. Town of Dracut, 732 F.3d 29 (1st Cir. 2013).

Recently, in McArdle v. Town of Dracut, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of the Town of Dracut on claims brought under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by Raymond McArdle, a former middle school English teacher in the Dracut school system, who began to experience personal issues that caused him to miss numerous school days during the 2008-2009 school year. The First Circuit held that McArdle (1) was not eligible to take FMLA leave because he had not worked 1,250 hours in the previous year; (2) could not establish that the Town’s handling of his FMLA application caused him harm; and (3) was not fired for requesting FMLA leave but, instead, because of his indefinite absence.

In 2007-2008, McArdle went through a divorce and personal crises that caused him to miss work at the middle school. In fact, he went to work only ten of twenty-one school days in September of 2008, and did not appear at all in October, November, or December of 2008. After the winter break, his record improved temporarily in 2009, but he did not work any days in June, the final month of the school year. In total, he came to school for only eighty-two days in the 2008–2009 school year. Throughout the school year, McArdle provided only cursory explanations for his absences – e.g., two notes indicating he had a “medical condition” and was unable to work for “medical reasons.” The school disciplined McArdle for not attending faculty meetings when he was absent from work. It also disciplined him for failing to leave lesson plans for a substitute with the vice-principal, even though the First Circuit found that he had done so.

McArdle easily exhausted his entire sick and personal leave time in the 2008–2009 year. He also exercised a contractual right to use his fifteen days of sick leave for the following 2009–2010 year to cover additional absences in the 2008–2009 school year. With regard to the remaining absences, McArdle had fifty-two “deduct days” during which school was in session but he was not paid.

On the first day of the 2009-2010 school year, McArdle did not report to work and informed the principal he had made the decision it was not in anyone’s best interests for him to return to the school. When he stated that he wanted to apply for FMLA leave, the superintendent’s office sent him the required paperwork. McArdle, however, did not send the superintendent the required written notice or a completed form from his physician.

Three weeks later, the principal sent McArdle a letter terminating his employment for reasons of abandonment. In response, McArdle finally requested FMLA leave in writing for the first time and demanded that the school district give him notice of its intent to terminate his employment before firing him. The school district, in turn, notified McArdle that it “intended” to terminate him, and allowed him 10 days to respond. Nine days later, McArdle resigned his position so as to avoid termination. He then sued the Town, its school district, and three individual school officials, alleging violations of the FMLA. The District Court allowed defendants’ motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the First Circuit affirmed.

First addressing McArdle’s eligibility to take FMLA leave, the First Circuit determined that the plaintiff had worked only 82 days during the last 12-month period prior to the start of his leave and, thus, was ineligible for FMLA protection. In reaching its conclusion, the Court rejected McArdle’s argument that he should be considered to have worked on days for which he was paid without working (such as holidays and personal days). The Court determined that, even if he had worked additional days or hours from home, “[t]he gap between 615 hours and 1250 hours [the number required for FMLA leave eligibility] is so large that it is entirely implausible on this record that McArdle worked anywhere close to 1250 hours.”

The Court next considered whether the school district interfered with McArdle’s FMLA rights by failing to notify him of his leave eligibility, but declined to rule on the issue. Even if the school district violated the technical notice requirements of the statute, McArdle offered no evidence that he suffered any loss or harm as a result.

Finally, the First Circuit ruled that the school district did not unlawfully retaliate against McArdle for requesting FMLA leave. Recognizing “it is not clear that one not entitled to take FMLA leave ‘avails himself of a protected right’ when requesting to take such leave,” the Court explicitly left open the possibility that an employee ineligible for FMLA leave may, nonetheless, state a viable retaliation claim, as he may not know of such ineligibility until he actually attempts to exercise his right. Here, the First Circuit’s review of the summary judgment record found that the “only reasonable reading . . . is that McArdle was not fired for asking to take FMLA leave. Rather, he was fired because the town concluded that his renewed and indefinite absence, without advance notice, allowed it to fire him.” The First Circuit therefore ruled that McArdle’s absence from work was “fully sufficient to cause his termination,” and that “no reasonable factfinder could find that the request for leave played any role in causing the town to fire [him].” Eligible or not, McArdle’s request for FMLA leave was not the motivating factor in the school district’s termination decision.

The First Circuit’s decision in McArdle highlights the statutory requirement that an employee must work at least 1,250 hours with the employer during the previous 12-month period in order to be eligible for FMLA leave. While the Court stopped short of determining whether an employee ineligible for FMLA leave engaged in protected activity by requesting such leave, it still upheld a summary judgment ruling in favor of a public employer based on the facts presented.

Published in Developments in Municipal Law Fall 2013 Newsletter.