Facility manager’s transfer to different location following HWE complaints didn’t violate FMLA

A manager at an Illinois Secretary of State’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) facility, who was told after returning from FMLA leave that he was being transferred following complaints that he was creating a hostile environment, failed to defeat summary judgment on his FMLA interference and retaliation claims since he was never denied leave, the transfer was not materially adverse (even though it was further from his house), and it never even happened. Upon his return from a second FMLA leave, which he began before the transfer could take effect, he was transferred to a facility closer to his home with the same duties and pay. Additionally, his claims for damages were barred on sovereign immunity grounds, the federal court in Illinois ruled.

Subordinates’ group complaint. The manager had worked for the Illinois Secretary of State since 2009 and was assigned to a DMV facility in Schaumburg, Illinois. In the summer of 2015, several of his subordinates sent a letter to his superior complaining that his behavior was creating a hostile work environment. They also asked the superior to either address the situation with him or transfer him to another facility.

On August 4, the superior and several members of the management team met to discuss the Schaumburg employees’ complaints. The manager participated by telephone since he was not at the facility (he would later request retroactive FMLA leave). At the meeting, his superior voiced his concerns about the content of the letter and the fact that so many Schaumburg employees appeared to have issues with the manager.

Transfer decision. Afterwards, the superior decided that the best course of action was to transfer the employee to a different facility, but he did not tell him about this decision at that time. Some weeks later, the personnel director learned that the employee was retroactively requesting FMLA leave for the period of August 3 through September 9. His request was granted on September 9, the same day that he was medically released to return to work.

Second leave request granted. Despite the superior’s prior decision to transfer the employee to a different facility, he resumed his prior position job at the Schaumburg facility. About a week later, on September 15, he was advised that he was being transferred to the Naperville facility effective September 22. Although his pay and benefits would not change, the Naperville facility was less convenient for him since it was almost 20 miles farther from his home than the Schaumburg facility.

The manager never actually transferred since he stopped coming to work after September 17. On September 24 (two days after the scheduled transfer), he requested a second FMLA leave, retroactive to September 18. His request was again approved and he remained out on leave until September 6, 2017, when his physician cleared him to return to work with certain permanent restrictions.

Moved to closer location. When the employee returned, he was transferred to third facility, which was closer to his home than either the Naperville or the Schaumburg facilities. Nevertheless, he filed this lawsuit alleging that the Secretary of State violated the FMLA by failing to return him to the same position or a substantially equivalent position when he came back from FMLA leave.

Sovereign immunity. The Secretary of State first argued that the employee’s FMLA claims were barred by the Eleventh Amendment since the Supreme Court has held that in Congress did not validly abrogate the states’ sovereign immunity as to the FMLA’s self-care provision. The court determined that because the employee’s periods of FMLA leave both related to self-care, any claim for damages was indeed barred. However, because he also sought prospective injunctive relief, summary judgment was not warranted on that basis alone.

Failed on merits. However, the employee’s FMLA interference and retaliation claims failed on the merits, even though he met the initial elements of his claims. It was undisputed that he was an eligible employee, that the Secretary of State was a qualified employer, and that he requested leave for a serious health condition. Moreover, although he submitted both of his leave requests after the leave periods began, the employer did not dispute that it had sufficient notice and approved both requests.

No denial of leave or adverse action. However, the employee couldn’t advance his FMLA interference claim since he was not denied any FMLA benefits and both of his leave requests had been approved. His FMLA retaliation claim was also doomed since he failed to demonstrate that he suffered an adverse employment action. While his superior had initially determined that he should be transferred to the Naperville facility, that transfer—to the same position, with the same pay and benefits, but with a longer commute—could not qualify as an adverse action since it was not “materially adverse” and “trivial harms” won’t suffice.

More importantly, the transfer to Naperville never occurred. Instead, he was ultimately transferred to a facility that was closer to his home, where he kept the same job title, responsibilities, pay, and benefits. There was also no evidence suggesting that the planned transfer had anything to do with his exercise of his FMLA rights. Rather, the record undisputedly showed that management contemplated the transfer (which never occurred) solely because of his behavior in the workplace and the hostile environment he created at the Schaumburg facility.

SOURCE: Hendrix v. Jesse White, State of Illinois Secretary of State, (N.D. Ill.), No. 1:17-cv-06467, July 11, 2018.
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