Transferred postmaster who failed to return from leave loses on FMLA, Title VII, and disability claims

Granting summary judgment against a postmaster’s claims of sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII, FMLA interference, and failure to accommodate or disparate treatment under the ADA and Rehab Act, a federal district court in Minnesota found that the postmaster failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as to her Title VII claims, but that she would not have been able to establish a prima facie case of sex discrimination or retaliation anyway. Her post-FMLA/maternity leave transfer was not an adverse action, and her eventual discharge after she took a more than an 18-month leave without pay was not discrimination or interference given that she provided inadequate return-to-work documentation. The court also determined that that the postmaster’s accommodation request—that she be allowed to work under a different supervisor—was not reasonable, and there were no equivalent open positions to which she could be reassigned.

Post maternity-leave transfer.

The postmaster of a small post office in Minnesota who returned to full-time work after taking FMLA maternity leave was transferred to a different but similarly small post office in order to resolve pending complaints of two rural postal carriers that she had reportedly “verbally disrespected them, humiliated them, and caused issues with their pay.” The transfer was also to accommodate her need for medical treatment for her newborn. Although the postmaster positions at the two post offices “are identical in compensation, duties, and benefits,” the postmaster’s original office was “very short-staffed” because it did not have any additional clerks. Three months later, when the postmaster was reassigned back to her old post office, she “had a mental breakdown” after finding the office “in disarray.” She went back on leave and requested a different supervisor as a reasonable accommodation. After more than a year on leave without any resolution, the post office terminated the postmaster’s employment.
While out on her second leave, the former postmaster filed her first lawsuit, alleging sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII, FMLA interference, and failure to accommodate under the ADA. After her position was terminated, she filed a second lawsuit alleging failure to accommodate under the Rehab Act as well as Title VII retaliation. The court consolidated her lawsuits and the post office moved for summary judgment.

No continuing violations.

The court initially determined that the postmaster had not followed administrative requirements that she contact an EEO counselor within 45 days. While this would normally doom her Title VII claims for not exhausting her administrative remedies, the postmaster claimed she was saved by the continuing violations doctrine because at least one of the instances of alleged discrimination fell within the time period. However, the court noted that her complaint concerned discrete instances of alleged discrimination, rather than an ongoing pattern of activity, and she had not alleged a hostile work environment. Consequently, the continuing violations doctrine could not apply to the postmaster’s Title VII sex discrimination and retaliation claims, and the court threw them out for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

No Title VII prima facie case, anyway.

Despite finding no jurisdiction for ruling on the postmaster’s Title VII claims, the court nevertheless ruled that they were meritless, anyway. First, the postmaster could not establish a prima facie case because her transfer—which did not come with a decrease in pay, benefits, or change in title—was not an adverse employment action. Her transfer was not a demotion, even though she never took on the entire managerial responsibilities in the office to which she was transferred, because she was unable to attend the meetings during which she was to assume those responsibilities.
Additionally, her eventual termination was clearly an adverse action, but it not only occurred nearly two years after she engaged in protected activity, it was also the result of a voluntary leave of absence that the postmaster could have ended if she had provided sufficient medical documentation to return to work. Instead, she provided only multiple, nearly identical notes from her psychologist stating she should “be placed on a leave of absence for six months” to resolve her diagnoses of “Major Depression, Social Phobia and Generalized Anxiety Disorder which appear to be a direct result of the work stress she has been experiencing.” This was not the required medical documentation that she was able to perform the functions of her position to enable her return to work.

No sign of pretext.

There were several nondiscriminatory explanations for the postmaster’s termination, the court concluded. The policy of the USPS allowed workers to be terminated if they remained in unpaid leave status for more than a year and there was little likelihood that they would return in 90 days, and the worker had been in such a status for 18 months. As for the transfer, the decision could be explained by the lack of staff in the postmaster’s initial post office to cover for her need to make doctor’s appointments for her newborn. None of these factors was seriously challenged as pretextual by the worker.

FMLA entitlement.

The postmaster’s claim that her supervisor violated the FMLA’s entitlement requirement by transferring her to a different post office after returning from her FMLA maternity leave was also, according to the court, without merit. While the postmaster admitted that her salary and benefits did not change, she tried to argue that her reassigned position was not and equivalent position because she was not made the officer in charge of the new office. However, she admitted that she was not able to attend meetings on the dates that were proposed to transfer those duties over to her.

Requested accommodations not reasonable.

Finally, the court found that the worker’s request for an accommodation under the ADA or Rehab Act—limited only to the request to have a different supervisor—was unreasonable as a matter of law. Even if it was reasonable, there were no similar positions in the region with a different supervisor. She now claimed that several positions were actually open, but the positions she identified were either not equivalent to her previous job, or were for post offices over 100 miles away, outside of her requested area. Her disparate treatment claims were also untenable because she was terminated under a discretionary policy providing for termination after 12 months of leave-without-pay status, a period she exceeded by more than six months, failed to provide sufficient return-to-work documentation, and her accommodation request was unreasonable.

SOURCE: Huwe v. Brennan, (D. Minn.), No. 15-3687 and No. 17-1647, May 9, 2018.
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