Suspending Employee on Return from FMLA Leave, Firing her After Skipped Meeting, Not Retaliation

June 26, 2017

Though the timing of adverse actions taken against an administrative assistant was suspicious—as she was suspended for purported misconduct the day she returned from her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave and fired after she skipped her disciplinary meeting—she was unable to revive her FMLA retaliation claim.

The employee served as an administrative assistant to the chief judge of a state circuit court that covered six counties. The chief judge oversaw the administrative functions of the entire circuit, while the presiding judge of the county court where she worked supervised her day-to-day functions. She took two periods of unpaid FMLA leave during her tenure due to health issues, first from March to May 2011, and later from June to August 2012.

Suspended upon return from leave. The day after she returned from her second leave, the presiding judge gave her a disciplinary letter stating that she was being placed on paid leave pending a disciplinary meeting with the chief judge. The letter described several instances of misconduct, first stating that she engaged in insubordination and conduct “unbecoming a judicial employee” a year earlier when she changed the schedules for the court reporters, which had led to harsh criticism from one judge and controversy among the courthouse staff. The letter also stated that she engaged in misconduct when, also a year earlier, she disregarded his direction to meet with him about her return to full-time work following her first FMLA leave, and instead contacted the chief judge. Another incident that was described had occurred immediately before her second period of FMLA leave, and involved her alleged mishandling of vault requests. Finally, the letter stated she repeatedly attempted to undermine her supervisor’s authority by making disparaging comments to coworkers.

Fired after skipping disciplinary meeting. The letter invited her to respond to the allegations at a meeting with the chief judge and others. It also said she could respond in writing, but warned that the meeting would proceed with or without her. In response, she advised the chief judge in writing that she would not attend the meeting, while failing to address the accusations against her. After she skipped the meeting, the chief judge discharged her. She brought this FMLA retaliation claim against the Administrative Office (AO) of the Illinois Courts, describing it as “an agency of state government that has the responsibility of providing administrative assistance to the courts of the State of Illinois.” The district court tossed her claim on summary judgment, reasoning that the AO was not her employer under the FMLA and that there was no evidence of retaliation.

No retaliatory intent. On appeal, the principal evidence she relied upon to show retaliatory intent was the undoubtedly suspicious timing. However, suspicious timing alone is rarely enough to show that an employer’s proffered explanation for the adverse action was pretext for retaliation. “The critical question is simply whether the inference of unlawful intent is reasonable (at summary judgment) or correct (at trial),” explained the Seventh Circuit. The AO presented evidence that she was fired for several facially legitimate reasons: ignoring her supervisor’s instruction not to handle vault requests from court reporters, going over his head about returning to work full time, and creating a new assignment schedule for court reporters without the authority to do so. Though she argued these reasons were “phony,” merely disagreeing with them was not enough. She needed to show they were “factually baseless, were not the actual motivation for the discharge in question, or were insufficient to motivate” the firing. This was more challenging where, as here, multiple reasons were given for the firing.

Reasons not false. Significantly, she failed to offer evidence suggesting that any reason was false. She admittedly had no authority to take a coworker into the vault, thus engaged in misconduct in doing so. Moreover, while the other reasons for her discharge could be viewed as mistaken or unfair, the issue was to whether they could reasonably be found to be dishonest. Her mere disagreement about the reasons given for her discharge did not support an inference of pretext, particularly where she declined to participate in the disciplinary process. Indeed, she did not dispute that the chief judge—who ultimately decided to fire her—honestly believed that each reason listed in the disciplinary letter supported her firing. She also didn’t refute his assertion that he made the decision independently, and only after she declined to participate in disciplinary process. Accordingly, because she failed to point to any facts showing that his explanation was unworthy of belief, she failed to raise a triable issue about pretext.