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School District Held Liable For FMLA Retaliation


The federal Family and Medical Leave Act entitles those who work for public employers or companies with at least 50 employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year to care for a new child or an immediate family member with a serious health condition, or to take medical leave when unable to work because of a health condition.

FMLA also bars employers from retaliating against employees for seeking to exercise their rights under the law, as a school district in Rhode Island found out recently.

In that case, administrative assistant Colleen Derrick sought and received a transfer to a position as secretary to the director of the district’s vocational school.

The new role required her to use software and perform tasks she had not previously performed, and within a few months the director contacted HR expressing concerns about her performance.

Derrick was soon placed on a performance improvement plan, or PIP.

Soon after, Derrick’s physician recommended she be placed on medical leave for chest pain, headaches and panic episodes, and the city approved her request for about six weeks of FMLA leave.

However, the HR director and school superintendent suspected she was faking her symptoms to avoid dealing with the PIP and sought a second opinion examination before approving an extension of Derrick’s leave.

Derrick decided to retire instead.

She then completed training to become a teacher’s assistant and was hired as a substitute TA for two months in a special education class.

But when the HR director learned Derrick was doing work for the city, she terminated the assignment and told Derrick she would not be eligible for future assignments because she had not completed her PIP for her prior position.

Derrick brought suit in U.S. District Court alleging that both the request for a second opinion medical exam and her termination constituted illegal retaliation under FMLA.

Though the judge said the request for the second exam may have been permissible, the city could not provide a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason why it fired Derrick from her substitute teaching assistant role, since the firing was unrelated to her performance in that role.

The judge also did not buy the HR director’s explanation that Derrick’s failure to complete the PIP in her prior role showed she wasn’t a “team player.”

Now the city will have to pay damages equal to the wages and benefits Derrick was denied.