FMLA Leave Doesn't Make You Superman And Other Lessons From Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools

By harley erbe

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A common misconception that we encounter as Des Moines FMLA lawyers is the effect of FMLA leave on employers' right to investigate or discipline employees who are on FMLA leave. The misconception is that it's illegal for employers to investigate or discipline employees who are on FMLA leave. That's actually not true. FMLA leave does not make an employee bulletproof, like Superman. Employees can be investigated or disciplined for things that occurred before or during their FMLA leave, as long as the discipline doesn't occur because of the leave.

That point was recently illustrated when a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal of FMLA claims in Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Andrew Adams, a teacher, was being investigated for an incident involving a student. Adams went on FMLA leave shortly after the school district began its internal investigation into the student's allegations. The school's investigative process continued while Adams was on medical leave. The school required him to attend a pre-disciplinary conference had been scheduled while he was on leave. Two weeks after the conference, Adams received a letter from the school formally reprimanding him for the issue involving the student.

Adams later sued the school district. One of his claims alleged that the district interfered with his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for taking medical leave. Adams argued that the school district interfered with his leave in a variety of ways that stopped short of actually denying him leave. 

One such allegation involved the ongoing investigation during Adams's leave and the fact that he was required to attend a meeting with school officials while on leave. Adams contended that the district's pre-disciplinary conference interfered with his leave by forcing him to "work." It's true that, in certain circumstances, required meetings may unlawfully interrupt an employee's leave and violate the FMLA. But the court concluded that the one-time conference was a legitimate piece of an ongoing investigation into the alleged incident between Adams and the student.

The court also rejected Adams's argument that the ongoing investigation, which continued while he was on medical leave, somehow violated his FMLA rights. There was little evidence that the school district closed and then reopened its investigation into whether Adams had violated school district policies, much less that its actions had anything to do with Adams's FMLA leave. Rather, the court believed that the evidence pointed to the contrary conclusion that the district's investigation into school district policy violations was continuous.

The court also found no issue with the school district's requirement that Andrews attend a disciplinary meeting while on medical leave. The pre-disciplinary conference was part of the investigatory and disciplinary process. The court determined that Adams did not adequately link the disciplinary meeting to his FMLA absences and that seeking the participation of Adams and his attorney in that process did not constitute an impermissible interference with Adams's FMLA leave.

In sum, the appellate court decided that none of the school district's actions violated the Family and Medical Leave Act. This case is noteworthy because Andrews's FMLA absences did not in any way inhibit his employer's right to investigate him for conduct that allegedly occurred before he sought FMLA leave. Although employers may, and often do, refrain from disciplining or investigating employees who are on FMLA leave, there is no legal requirement that they do so.

Please feel free to contact us if you need the assistance of a Des Moines employment lawyer.

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