Labor & Employment Law I DECEMBER 9, 2019

Employee's Unusual Behavior May Alert Employer to Possible Disability

From May 2010 through June 2016, Noemi Valdivia worked as an assistant to the associate principal for instruction at Elk Grove High School. During her time at Elk Grove, Valdivia received excellent performance evaluations. Her supervisors described her as “extremely dependable” and an “invaluable resource,” and they said that her work was “immaculate” and “free from error.” Valdivia was never disciplined and rarely took sick days.

Valdivia applied for and received a promotion to the post of assistant to the principal, Angela Sisi, 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 Sisi and explained that she was feeling overwhelmed, had lost weight, was not able to sleep, and was not hungry.

Valdivia spoke to Sisi again. Valdivia described in detail what was happening to her, saying things like, “I’m so confused. I’m not eating. I’m not sleeping. I’ve been losing weight. I’m so overwhelmed. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”

Valdivia then had a third conversation with Sisi. Sisi told Valdivia that she needed to decide whether she was staying or leaving.

Valdivia ultimately submitted a letter of resignation, but soon came to Sisi’s home, crying and asking to rescind her resignation. Sisi denied Valdivia’s request to rescind and Valdivia’s employment ended.

Valdivia sued, claiming that the District interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act 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. The District then moved for judgment as a matter of law, but the district court denied that motion. The District then took an appeal. 

To prevail on an FMLA-interference claim, an employee must establish the following: (1) she was eligible for the FMLA’s protections, (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA, (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA, (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave, and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled. 

The District argued that Valdivia did not have a serious health condition, but the appeals court found the evidence in the record was sufficient to support the jury’s finding that Valdivia had a serious health condition, as defined in the FMLA. 

Although Valdivia’s doctors did not examine her while she was working, an employee does not need to be diagnosed during her employment, as long as the condition existed then.

The District also contended that the notice Valdivia provided was insufficient as a matter of law. In analyzing this issue, the court of appeals referred to one of its earlier opinions, Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379 (7th Cir. 2003).

Byrne was a case in which the court of appeals held that clear abnormalities in an employee’s behavior may be enough to alert the employer to a serious health condition.

Here, Valdivia met with Sisi on several occasions to report her deteriorating mental health. She 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 jury was entitled to conclude that this was timely and actual notice to the employer.

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

The appeals court affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, 942 F.3d 395 (7th Cir. 2019).