By Kimberly D. Jeselskis, Jeselskis Brinkerhoff and Joseph LLC
In Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, ---F.3d --- (7th Cir. 2019); 2019 WL 5884449, Noemi Valdivia (Valdivia) worked successfully as an administrative assistant for Township High School District 214 located in Arlington Heights, Illinois (the district) until she began experiencing severe psychological problems that ultimately led to the end of her employment. She sued the District under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), claiming that it interfered with her rights under the Act by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave. After a trial, a jury returned a verdict in Valdivia’s favor and awarded her $12,000 in damages. The district then moved for judgment as a matter of law under FRCP 50(b). This district court denied the motion, and the district appealed. The Seventh Circuit affirmed.
From May 2010 to June 2016, Valdivia worked for the District as an assistant at Elk Grove High School (Elk Grove). During her time at Elk Grove, Valdivia received excellent performance evaluations and praise from her superiors. In the summer of 2016, Valdivia learned about a new opening in the district at Wheeling High School (Wheeling). Valdivia applied for and received a promotion. In mid-June 2016, Valdivia began reporting to the principal as the principal’s assistant.
Shortly after she started working at Wheeling, Valdivia’s mental state began to deteriorate. She had trouble sleeping, eating and getting out of bed, and she lacked energy. In July, her symptoms worsened. She experienced insomnia, weight loss, she could not get out of bed and she started leaving work early because she could not control her crying.
Valdivia did not try to conceal her symptoms when she was at work. She met with the principal and described her symptoms to her. She also mentioned to the principal that she received an offer for a different job but said she would probably remain at Wheeling. Approximately two days later, Valdivia spoke to the principal again. She described in detail what was happening to her for the second time: “I’m so confused. I’m not eating, I’m not sleeping. I’ve been losing weight. I’m so overwhelmed. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.” Valdivia also asked the principal for a 10-month position instead of her 12-month position because she thought the time away might help. The principal declined the request. Valdivia then stated she might accept the other job offer.
Shortly thereafter, Valdivia had a third conversation with the principal where the principal told Valdivia she needed to decide whether she was staying or leaving. Valdivia started crying and the discussion ended. Valdivia sought out the principal four or five more times after that conversation to discuss whether she should accept the other job offer. A few times, Valdivia went home after the conversations because of uncontrollable crying. In early August, Valdivia told the principal that she was considering leaving “for medical reasons,” and again asked for a 10-month position.
On August 4, 2016, Valdivia submitted a letter of resignation, which would take effect on August 11, 2016. She regretted her decision to resign almost immediately. On August 9, 2016, she showed up at the principal’s home early in the morning, crying and asking to rescind her resignation. The principal denied the request. Valdivia’s employment ended on August 11, 2016. That same day, Valdivia scheduled an appointment with her physician. As a result of her ongoing health issues, Valdivia was hospitalized later in the month. She was ultimately diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder. Her physician testified at trial that it would be difficult for anybody with her symptoms to work.
Valdivia filed suit against the district, claiming that it interfered with her rights under the FMLA. To prevail on an FMLA-interference claim, an employee must establish:
- she was eligible for the FMLA’s protections
- her employer was covered by the FMLA
- she was entitled to leave under the FMLA
- she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave; and
- her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.
Valdivia, 2019 WL 588449 at *3 (citing Burnett v. LFW Inc., 472 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2006)).
The district argued on appeal that no reasonable juror could find that (a) Valdivia was entitled to leave under the FMLA or (b) Valdivia provided the district with adequate notice.
The Seventh Circuit found that the jury reasonably concluded that Valdivia suffered from a serious health condition. Valdivia, 2019 WL 588449 at *3. The court pointed to evidence in the record, including Valdivia’s hospitalization for the same symptoms she was suffering from while working for the district. The court also pointed to Valdivia’s detailed testimony describing her condition and the symptoms she experienced from June through August 2016, including insomnia, loss of appetite, weight loss and uncontrollable crying. Valdivia’s medication records, which were admitted into evidence, also corroborated her testimony. The Seventh Circuit further found that a reasonable jury could also conclude that because of her serious health condition, Valdivia was unable to perform the functions of her job.
In response to the district’s argument that Valdivia did not provide sufficient notice, the Seventh Circuit reminded the District that FMLA notice requirements are not onerous. 2019 WL 588449 at *4 (citing Burnett, 472 F.3d at 478). The court explained that “[i]t is enough for purposes of the FMLA…that an employer ‘knows of the employee’s need for leave; the employee need not mention the statute or demand its benefits.’” Valdivia, 2019 WL 588449 at *4 ((citing Stevenson v. Hyre Elec. Co., 505 F.3d 720, 726 (7th Cir. 2007) (quoting Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 382 (7th Cir. 2003)). The court pointed to the danger-signs from Valdivia’s behavior and to the multiple meetings that Valdivia had with the principal where she discussed her deteriorating mental health. The court also noted that Valdivia requested an accommodation of a 10-month position rather than a 12-month position.
The court further explained that Valdivia’s behavior came directly to principal’s attention in that Valdivia had been a model employee during six years at Elk Grove and her behavior at Wheeling contrasted sharply to what the principal expected from her record. Given that Valdivia was the principal’s personal assistant, the jury was entitled to conclude that the principal knew about these problems: the profuse crying, the late arrivals and early departures and the inability to finish tasks. Thus, the court found that the jury could reasonably concluded that Valdivia’s notice to the district was adequate.
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