An Employee’s Conduct Can Be Sufficient Notice for FMLA Claims

March 26, 2020

In Valdivia v. Twp. High Sch. Dist. 214, 942 F.3d 395 (7th Cir. 2019) Noemi Valdivia worked successfully as an administrative assistant for Township High School District 214, which is headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois, until she began experiencing severe psychological problems that ultimately led to the end of her employment there.

Valdivia applied for and received a promotion to the post of assistant to the principal at Wheeling High School. Shortly after she started at Wheeling, Valdivia began to have mental health issues. She had trouble sleeping, eating, and getting out of bed, and she lacked energy. In July, her symptoms worsened: she experienced insomnia, weight loss, uncontrollable crying, racing thoughts, an inability to concentrate, and exhaustion. Valdivia began going into work late because she could not drag herself out of bed, and she started leaving work early because she could not control her crying. She applied for other jobs, thinking a different position might help her.

Valdivia met with the principal three times and described the symptoms she was experiencing. The principal told Valdivia that she needed to decide whether she was staying or leaving the position. Valdivia ultimately submitted a letter of resignation. The principal later denied Valdivia’s request to rescind, and Valdivia’s employment ended.

Valdivia sued, claiming that the school district interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by failing to provide her with notice or information about her right to take job-protected leave. A jury returned a verdict in Valdivia’s favor, and the Appellate Court affirmed on appeal.

The Appellate Court reasoned that the school district knew, through Valdivia’s conduct and her conversations with the principal, that she suffered from deteriorating mental health and was entitled to FMLA. The Court found significant that Valdivia met with the principal on several occasions to report her condition and asked for the accommodation of a ten-month position rather than a twelve-month position, even though she did not expressly mention the FMLA when she made the request. She said that she was incapable of accepting a new work assignment. The Court concluded that the jury was entitled to find that this was adequate timely and actual notice to the employer.

Additionally, the Court found evidence that Valdivia’s behavior came directly to the principal’s attention. Valdivia had been a model employee during her six years at Elk Grove. The jury was entitled to conclude that the principal knew about the profuse crying, late arrivals and early departures, and her inability to finish tasks. The school district thus had notice of Valdivia’s mental health problem through her conduct, as well as through her direct reports.

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