Benefits and Compensation, HR Management & Compliance

College Shoots ‘Airball’ in Basketball Coach’s FMLA Lawsuit

An “airball,” or a basketball shot that misses the backboard, rim, and net entirely, sums up an appeals court’s recent opinion about the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) retaliation and interference claims filed by a college coach. The ruling contains multiple lessons for all Texas employers covered by the Act.

Tip-off

Akia Stanton was the head women’s basketball coach at Jarvis Christian College in Hawkins, Texas, until the institution fired her in June 2018. Her FMLA claims derive from two events spanning a few weeks during the beginning of that summer.

First, the college’s student recruitment efforts were lagging. A frustrated college president called an all-hands-on-deck meeting in which he allegedly threatened to terminate employees for absenteeism.

At the same timeStanton’s anxiety and depression were worsening. She was suffering from panic attacks, experiencing chest and stomach pains, and engaging in uncontrollable bouts of crying while at work.

Game On

Stanton sought medical help. A nurse practitioner evaluated and diagnosed her as suffering from anxiety and depression and stated (in an FMLA form) the conditions would cause “episodic flare-ups periodically preventing [her] from performing her job functions.”

The FLMA form also noted Stanton was referred to “psych” and should be excused from work from June 8 to June 25. Certain sections of the form, however, were filled in with answers such as “unknown” or “TBD” (to be determined) by the physician.

Well, the form hit HR’s desk, and the director told Stanton on June 21 that the paperwork was incomplete. That is, the college needed answers to the responses “unknown,” “TBD,” or “as determined by.” Also, the form had to be completely filled out within seven days (or by June 28).

So far, so good. The FMLA’s rules were being followed. At the time, Stanton responded by stating she was working on submitting a completed form.

What happened next, do you think? That’s right, on June 29, the college terminated Stanton. The FMLA retaliation and interference lawsuit followed.

College Misses from ‘Downtown’

The college took several shots from beyond the paint (i.e., three-pointers). No baskets!

First, the college argued Stanton had already found a new job out of state, so seeking the FMLA leave was therefore a sham. Put another way, she didn’t really need the leave but wanted time off between departing from the college and commencing her new gig.

Even if true, the fact was irrelevant to the FMLA’s coverage. As an employee, she was entitled to avail herself of the employment benefits.

Second, there was some suggestion in the court’s opinion that Stanton was stealing things from the college. A June 14 security video showed her removing chairs, a couch, athletic and teaching equipment, and various boxes from her office and loading them into a car. She explained the items belonged to her and that she had brought them with her when she was hired. The college filed a police report on June 19, but the case was closed because of a lack of prosecutable evidence.

If you believe an employee is stealing, you should promptly conduct an investigation and take action. Filing an FMLA lawsuit doesn’t grant immunity to the employee. In Stanton’s case, the college apparently outsourced the duty to law enforcement.

Third, the college misread the regulations dealing with the FMLA, which are contained in the Code of Federal Regulations. The employer seemed to suggest Stanton’s medical conditions weren’t “serious health conditions,” which trigger FMLA rights. The argument was a no-go.

Having a serious health condition under the FMLA doesn’t mean the employee is flat on her back, unable to do a thing. The nurse practitioner noted Stanton’s conditions would prevent her from performing her job functions, albeit sporadically. The situation was serious from both a human standpoint and as a legal definition.

Fourth, the college seemed to rely on the FMLA form being incomplete and not corrected within the seven-day window allowed by the regulations. But you need to read the entire rule: “The employer must provide the employee with seven calendar days (unless not practicable under the circumstances despite the employee’s diligent good-faith efforts) to cure any such deficiency.”

So, the regulations require the employer and the employee to work together to fix the form. Why? Because the FMLA’s purpose is to accommodate a serious medical condition, not to say “tag, you’re it.”

Well, when the buzzer for the game clock finally sounded, Stanton won and was awarded $12,500 in damages. Stanton v. Jarvis Christian College (5th Cir., March 11, 2022).

Postgame Analysis

While the amount awarded to Stanton was small, never forget this: When an employer loses an FMLA lawsuit, it must pay not only its own lawyers but the employee’s lawyers. I promise the bills add up quickly.

Don’t be too eager, as here, to fire an employee for a technicality unless you’ve given the individual plenty of room and time to fix the issue.

When telling employees something is required of them, be sure to explain why! And the reason shouldn’t be merely because “the regulations say so” but because, say, you need the information to process the FMLA request fairly and quickly.

The approach should be your general rule for dealing with employees. Explain things to them so they understand the importance of the request but also because jurors will be considering the type of employer you are and whether they would want, say, a family member working for you. Like in a battle, always take the high ground.

Michael P. Maslanka is a professor at the UNT-Dallas College of Law. You can reach him at michael.maslanka@untdallas.edu.