Benefits and Compensation

Federal Appeals Court Finds Town’s Decision Not to Reappoint Employee on FMLA Leave Lawful

The town of Kingston didn’t violate the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or state disability discrimination laws when it decided not to reappoint an employee on FMLA leave to her position after her predetermined term expired, the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Massachusetts employers) recently ruled, upholding a lower court’s opinion. Here’s what happened.

Facts

Linda Felix served as Kingston’s director of elder affairs for a term set to expire on December 31, 2013. The job was subject to reappointment. Before the end date, she applied for the maximum amount of FMLA leave. The Act guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for, among other things, a serious medical condition rendering the worker unable to perform her job duties.

Kingston granted Felix’s request for the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave, even though her term as director of elder affairs was slated to end during the leave period. When she reapplied to fill the vacancy, she wasn’t reappointed or even selected for an interview. She sued the town and various employees for, among other things, FMLA interference and retaliation and violations of the Massachusetts disability discrimination and whistleblower protection statutes.

A federal trial court ruled in Kingston’s favor and dismissed the case altogether. Felix appealed the decision to the 1st Circuit.

1st Circuit Shoots Down Three Arguments

Felix argued the lower court got three important factual matters wrong, which should have been enough to allow her case to proceed to trial (rather than be dismissed). The errors, she claimed, doomed her FMLA and Massachusetts disability discrimination claims. In response, Kingston argued the evidence in the record supported the lower court’s finding on each fact, which shouldn’t be overturned. The 1st Circuit agreed with the town.

First, Felix pointed to an e-mail in which Kingston’s attorney used the word “terminated,” which she said is “smoking-gun” evidence she was affirmatively fired (as opposed to her appointment expiring). To the contrary, the 1st Circuit found the evidence showed only (1) her formal appointment had expired as of January 1, 2014, and (2) she was no longer employed by the town. It didn’t show she was fired or terminated. The e-mail was a matter of “poor word choice” by the town’s attorney.

Once Felix’s term expired, the 1st Circuit reasoned, Kingston was under no obligation to restore her to her position after the FMLA leave ended because her employment had already come to a natural end. As a result, she couldn’t rest her retaliation claims on a termination that never occurred.

Second, Felix pointed to deposition testimony from a Kingston employee who said the town administrator had instructed her to pay Felix her accrued vacation time because her appointment was up on December 31, 2013, and she wasn’t coming back. Felix contended the statement supports her assertion that she was terminated rather than simply not reappointed as the town insists happened (i.e., it proves she was fired).

The 1st Circuit didn’t agree the statement in the deposition supported Felix’s conclusion. The court reiterated Kingston had no obligation to extend her employment and opted not to do so.

Finally, Felix noted Kingston requested information about her disability after both her initial appointment and the FMLA leave ending, which she claimed violated the Massachusetts disability discrimination law. The court didn’t find any support in the record for her contention and instead highlighted evidence indicating otherwise. In particular, a town employee testified at her deposition that information about Felix’s disability wasn’t known to or relied on by the employees who decided not to reappoint her.

Felix, for her part, failed to put forth any evidence refuting the testimony. The court concluded Kingston hadn’t violated the state disability discrimination law.

Thus, the 1stCircuit found Felix’s case was properly dismissed and affirmed the lower court’s decision. Felix v. Town of Kingston (2021).

Bottom Line

Felix’s case is unique because the employment at issue was for a predetermined term subject to reappointment, but it can serve as a reminder that employee protections under the state and federal laws aren’t boundless. You should continue to be cautious when dealing with leaves of absence and discrimination laws and assess each employee’s situation on a case-by-case basis.

Meaghan E. Murphy is an associate at the firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield, Massachusetts. You can reach her at r mmurphy@skoler-abbott.com.