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Decided: June 15, 2015

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the judgment of the district court determining that there was no merit to the plaintiff’s claims of the defendant violating his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).   

This appeal stemmed from the district court’s grant of defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding the plaintiff’s FMLA interference and retaliation claims and the plaintiff’s ADA discrimination and retaliation claims. In January of 2010, Adams, an assistant principal at MacArthur Middle School, was involved in an incident with a student. The student claimed that Adams grabbed her arms, shook her, and held her against the wall. Due to the incident, Child Protective Services (CPS) launched a child abuse investigation and referred the matter to the School Board. In the meantime, Adams was reassigned from MacArthur.

On February 25, Adams was transferred back to MacArthur. However, that same day, Adams went on medical leave upon recommendation from an internal medicine specialist due to the stress and anxiety caused by the incident. On two other instances, Adams attempted to return, but took medical leaves due to stresses from the incident. Adams’ doctor diagnosed him with acute stress disorder and informed the Board that Adams would need to be transferred to another school, due to the likelihood of panic attacks at MacArthur. During Adams’ medical leave, the School Board continued its investigation regarding the incident. On August 4, Adams began working at J. Albert Adams Academy (JAA), a specialized middle school for children with behavioral issues. JAA is a much smaller school with a more favorable staff-to-student ratio. Adams’ salary remained the same for two years and then was reduced less than one percent due to JAA’s smaller size. JAA employees are ineligible for certain discretionary bonuses available at other schools. Adams contends that the Board interfered with his FMLA rights and retaliated against him for taking medical leave, and he contends that the Board discriminated and retaliated against him in violation of the ADA.

Under the FMLA, employees are allowed to take a total of twelve workweeks of leave during a twelve month period if the employee is burdened with “a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform” his job. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D). Also, when returning from FMLA leave, employees are entitled to be restored to their previous position or an equivalent position. An interference occurs under the FMLA when an employee demonstrates that (1) he is entitled to an FMLA benefit; (2) his employer interfered with that benefit; and (3) that interference caused harm. See 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(1). Notably, the Fourth Circuit found that Adams was not denied FMLA leave. As a matter of fact, he took three different medical leaves that exceeded the twelve week maximum. Alternatively, Adams argues the Board interfered in a variety of ways that stopped short of actual denial of his leave. However, the Fourth Circuit determined that the actions taken by the School Board, including the requirement of second medical opinions, the investigative procedures, and the verbal reprimands, did not constitute “interference.”  

Additionally, Adams claimed that the School Board retaliated against him under the FMLA. However, the Fourth Circuit determined that there was “no retaliatory animus” present. The Board essentially accommodated for Adams’ disability by moving him to JAA, after the request was made to move Adams from MacArthur. The fact that the school deals with children that have behavioral problems is not sufficient due to the smaller number of students and the great reviews that Adams has already received. Further, the Fourth Circuit determined the slight decrease in pay and ineligibility to receive certain bonuses did not constitute retaliation.

The Fourth Circuit also did not find any merit regarding the claims brought by Adams under the ADA. The ADA forbids employers to discriminate or retaliate. In order to have a claim involving discrimination or retaliation, the plaintiff must have suffered an adverse employment action. This standard seeks to differentiate actions that are “significant” from actions that are “trivial.” Here, the Fourth Circuit determined that none of the actions taken by the School Board rose to the level of an adverse employment action. “Dislike of or disagreement with an employer’s decisions does not invariably make those decisions ones that adversely affected some aspect of employment.”

Finally, Adams claimed that the Board failed to reasonably accommodate for his disability by moving him to JAA. However, the Fourth Circuit determined that the Board’s accommodations for Adams’ disability were plainly reasonable. The Board, in its appropriate discretion, weighed the negative of the school being for children with bad behavioral problems with the positives of the small student population and the excellent staff-to-student ratio. Further, Adams never objected to his assignment at JAA, and he has “thrived” there.     

Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit held that there were no violations of the FMLA and the ADA, and the decision of the district court was affirmed.

Full Opinion

Austin T. Reed