Superintendent’s Resignation Not Actionable Under FMLA
Glen Lake Community Schools’ former superintendent (“Superintendent”) resigned a few years ago after the board ordered an independent audit of whether the district had appropriately tracked administrators’ time off. The audit was ordered following the Superintendent’s use of leave, including leave protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act. After resigning, the Superintendent sued the district, alleging that she was “constructively discharged” for exercising her FMLA leave and that her FMLA rights had been unlawfully “interfered with” by the board’s action. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, holding that there was insufficient evidence of retaliation and that no FMLA violation occurred. Groening v Glen Lake Cmty Schs, Case No. 17-1848 (CA 6, March 12, 2018).
The Superintendent conceded in her lawsuit that the board did not fire, demote, or discipline her for taking FMLA leave. Instead, she asserted that she was “constructively discharged” because the board purportedly subjected her to “months of hostility because it believed her leave was holding up the school district’s business.” For example, one board member allegedly told the Superintendent that she was concerned about the board having to work around the Superintendent’s schedule. The board president allegedly indicated that he was going to hold the Superintendent responsible for taking leave on her next performance evaluation. The Superintendent also alleged that the board requested an outside audit because it was looking for a reason “to get rid of her.”
The Sixth Circuit concluded that these allegations, even if true, did not support the Superintendent’s claims for retaliation and unlawful FMLA interference. First, the court noted that employers are absolutely permitted to investigate their employees for wrongdoing, “including wrongdoing related to protected leave.” Second, because the Superintendent was unaware of some of the alleged criticism of her before her resignation, these comments could not have created “intolerable conditions” that led to a “constructive discharge.” Finally, the court emphasized that employer criticisms of an employee do not amount to “constructive discharge,” especially when only a few, isolated comments occur. In the end, the court concluded that the Superintendent failed to show that the board retaliated against her or otherwise interfered with her protected leave.
This case highlights the importance of conducting prompt, objective, and thorough investigations of alleged misconduct before taking any adverse employment action against an employee, especially one who has engaged in a protected activity. The act of investigating, if done fairly, is not an adverse employment action and is an important safeguard in ensuring that decisions comply with state and federal law.