State university hospital immune from FMLA suit, but claims against individual supervisors survive

A discharged University of New Mexico hospital employee could not proceed with his FMLA claims against the state entity, but he could move forward with his FMLA claims against his supervisors, a federal district court in New Mexico ruled. The court partially granted the employers’ motion to dismiss, finding that the hospital had sovereign immunity against the FMLA claims. However, his supervisors could be found individually liable under the FMLA if, as alleged, they denied the employee FMLA leave and fired him shortly after he requested leave. His claims against both the hospital and supervisors for denial of due process, breach of implied contract, and wrongful termination also survived based on the employee’s allegations he was fired without prior notice or hearing, and without just cause.

Mental health issues.

The employee began working at the hospital in 2007. He had a long history of post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression, for which he received therapy and medication. For most of his tenure, he managed his symptoms and performed his duties satisfactorily, but in 2016, his symptoms became more intense, necessitating more frequent and structured therapy. The employee submitted FMLA paperwork to the hospital to address his therapy and necessary work accommodations.

In March 2016, the employee’s severe anxiety caused him to take ten days’ medical leave. Upon his return, he submitted FMLA paperwork to his supervisor, but the supervisor noted that on his medical certification, the employee had checked both “yes” and “no” boxes as to whether he would require accommodation.

Anxiety attack.

On March 23, the employee experienced increased symptoms, and asked his supervisor if he could leave. At first the supervisor responded positively because the request was FMLA-related, but 30 minutes later told him they could not accommodate his request because several other employees were out. The employee continued to work, meeting his production requirements even though his symptoms remained intense. However, a few hours later, his supervisor questioned him about his allegedly low productivity, and accused him of not doing his job. The confrontation caused the employee to experience a panic attack, and he rushed out of the office, overcome with anxiety, leaving behind his badge and personal belongings.

No response.

The employee was treated at an urgent care clinic. His girlfriend called both the supervisor and another manager to advise them of the situation, and left a message that the employee was receiving medical treatment. She did not receive a return call from either supervisor. The employee was released on March 24, with a medical note stating he could not return to work before March 28. The girlfriend left another message, asking the supervisors to call her as soon as possible so she could update them on the employee’s prognosis and anticipated absence. The supervisors still did not respond.

Termination.

On March 28, the department manager finally called the girlfriend, telling her she would not discuss any issue with her relating to the employee. Shortly after, the employee received a letter from the department manager, dated March 23, stating that his employment ended due to his alleged voluntary resignation on that day. The letter noted the employee had requested FMLA leave, but that the request was denied. The employee did not resign, and described the letter as “a fabrication” to justify unlawful termination.

During the unemployment appeal hearing, the hospital and department manager admitted they knew about the girlfriend’s phone calls and intentionally did not return them, knew the employee requested leave on March 23 for his FMLA-certified condition, and if they knew of the severity of the employee’s medical condition, would not have terminated him. The employee sued the hospital and the supervisors for FMLA interference and retaliation, violation of due process, breach of implied contract, retaliatory discharge, and wrongful termination.

FMLA claims.

The hospital was entitled to sovereign immunity based on the self-care provision of the FMLA, so the FMLA claims against the hospital were dismissed. The court denied the motion to dismiss claims against the supervisors for FMLA interference and FMLA retaliation. Supervisors could be held individually liable for FMLA violations if acting in the interest of the hospital, and having substantial control over the aspects of employment alleged to have been violated. Here, the employee alleged that he described his symptoms to his supervisor, who was aware he requested FMLA leave, and that all supervisors were aware he had asserted his FMLA rights. Additionally, the employee’s girlfriend called the supervisors after the employee left work to tell them the employee had sought treatment. The employee alleged the supervisors knew he was entitled to FMLA leave and improperly denied leave, and that his supervisor purposefully aggravated his anxiety in order to falsely claim that he resigned, so they could fire him because he sought to exercise his FMLA rights. Denying the employee’s leave and firing him when he left the workplace to seek treatment constituted allegations of adverse actions by the supervisors sufficient to hold them individually liable.

The employee presented a prima facie case of FMLA retaliation against the supervisors, alleging temporal proximity between his protected activity of seeking FMLA leave, and the supervisor denying the leave and exacerbating his anxiety, followed by his termination. Because the employee was exercising his FMLA-protected rights when he left work on March 23, a retaliation claim was appropriate.

Other claims.

The court denied the motion to dismiss the employee’s due process claim against the hospital and supervisors. The employee alleged the hospital and supervisors deprived him of his property interest by firing him without just cause in violation of their own policies. Although failure to follow contractual procedures is not per se a violation of federal due process, the employee’s allegations suggested he had a protected interest in his employment, of which he was deprived without prior notice or a hearing. The employee also could proceed on his breach of implied contract claim, as he had alleged that the hospital could discipline or terminate him only for cause, but instead fired him without just cause. The court also refused to dismiss his wrongful termination claim, as he properly alleged the hospital failed to comply with its employment practices when it fired him without just cause. Although the breach of contract and wrongful discharge claims were mutually exclusive, it was inappropriate to dismiss either at this stage of the proceedings, the court said.
Because the remedial scheme of the FMLA foreclosed a retaliatory discharge claim under §1983, however, the court dismissed the employee’s retaliatory discharge claim against the hospital and the supervisors.

SOURCE: Cordova v. State of New Mexico (D.N.M.), No. 16-CV-1144-JAP-JHR, October 6, 2017.
Visit our News Library to read more news stories.