Undisputed facts showed employee’s FMLA claim barred by statute of limitations

Although an employee pointed out that her work location changed from an office to an aviation runway, and that her shift changed to overnight hours after she returned to work following FMLA leave, the Seventh Circuit declined to reach the merits of her FMLA claims, finding that undisputed facts showed her claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations. Moreover, the appeals court determined that the three-year limitations period for willful violations of the FMLA did not apply because the employee failed to provide evidence that the employer willfully violated her FMLA rights.
The employee worked as an electrical engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration for nearly five years. Electrical engineers assigned to the field typically do not work out of an office. Rather, they are assigned to field positions at airports across the central portion of the country. Initially, the employee was assigned to a field positon at Chicago’s Midway Airport. Her supervisor eventually assigned her to oversee technical support services contract releases for the Chicago office. Managing work releases required little to no field work, so the employee spent nearly all of her time in the office.

Change in job assignments.

The employee began FMLA leave on January 6, 2014, which lasted until she was ready to return to work on March 10. While she was on leave, the supervisor who had given her the desk assignment was transferred, and a new supervisor took over. The new supervisor assigned himself the task of overseeing the work releases the employee had overseen. According to the new supervisor, overseeing work releases was not appropriate work for a full-time field engineer.
Shortly after the employee returned to work, she was initially assigned to a field project at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. That project would have required her to work an aviation runway overnight. However, she never actually worked the overnight assignment. Rather, for the first three weeks she worked regular daytime hours so that she could secure childcare. Before starting the overnight assignment, the employee requested a transfer to a drafting coordinator position. The drafting coordinator position was in a lower pay band than electrical engineer, but the employee retained her electrical engineer salary.

Limitations period.

The employee filed this lawsuit under the FMLA on April 18, 2016, a little over two years after her assignment to work at O’Hare. Here, the Seventh Circuit did not reach the merits of the employee’s FMLA interference claim, finding that the undisputed facts showed that her claim was barred by the statute of limitations. An employee must bring an FMLA claim “not later than 2 years after the date of the last event constituting the alleged violation for which the action is brought.” An employee who takes FMLA leave is entitled, upon return, to be restored to the position she previously held or an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.
In this instance, the appeals court found that the employee’s lawsuit was untimely because she filed her complaint on April 18, 2016, more than two years after the statute of limitations clock began running. The clock started on March 21, 2014, when the employee’s supervisor assigned her to the field at O’Hare—the assignment she claimed violated her FMLA rights. The employee did not contest the employer’s contention that the statute of limitations began running on that date.

Willful violations.

Moreover, the appeals court found that the more generous three-year statute of limitations did not apply because the employee failed to offer evidence sufficient to support a finding that the employer willfully violated her rights. Specifically, the employee did not offer evidence that would allow a reasonable trier of fact to find that her supervisor either knew his conduct would violate the FMLA or showed reckless disregard. While the supervisor conceded that he knew the FMLA was in the picture, simple awareness was not sufficient to show willfulness. Here, the supervisor believed he was complying with the FMLA by restoring the employee to the same job title she had before her FMLA leave, and at the same pay. Accordingly, the judgment of the district court was affirmed.

SOURCE: Sampra v. United States Department of Transportation, (CA-7), No. 17-2621, April 24, 2018.
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