• No Merit in Appellant’s Claims that Board of Education of Anne Arundel County Violated His Rights Under the Family and Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilities Act
  • July 3, 2015
  • Law Firm: Semmes Bowen Semmes A Professional Corporation - Baltimore Office
  • Andrew Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools, (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, June 15, 2015)

    In Andrew Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools, No. 14-1608 (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, June 15, 2015), Adams appealed the district court order granting summary judgment to the Board of Education of Anne Arundel County (the “Board”) on Adams’ claims that the Board violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Adams had been employed as an assistant principal at a middle school in Anne Arundel County. Following an incident with a student in a hallway, Adams was investigated by Child Protective Services and the Board’s Employee Case Management Committee. As a result of the investigation and the stress it caused, Adams suffered a series of panic attacks and was diagnosed with acute stress disorder, a diagnosis that was eventually updated to post-traumatic stress disorder.

    After a temporary reassignment, Adams returned to the middle school about five (5) weeks after the incident. On the day that he returned to work, he went on medical leave. After about six (6) weeks, Adams returned to work again, and after being verbally reprimanded by the school’s principal, went on a second medical leave the same day, this time for five (5) days. Two weeks after his return to work, Adams began his third and final medical leave. During the course of his third leave, the Board required Adams to attend a pre-disciplinary conference, where he was formally reprimanded. Over the summer, the Board also required Adams to attend three sessions with a psychologist of the Board’s choosing, who cleared Adams to work during the next school year. When Adams returned to work, he was placed in a specialized middle school for children with behavioral issues. In accordance with a union contract, his pay was reduced by less than one percent (1%) after two (2) years because of the new school’s smaller size.

    Adams filed a lawsuit in Maryland state court, and the Board removed the case to federal court. The district court dismissed all of the allegations in Adams’ Second Amended Complaint, except for Adams’ FMLA interference and retaliation claims and his ADA discrimination and retaliation claims, both of which were ultimately rejected when the district court granted the Board’s summary judgment motion. Adams appealed the denial of his FMLA and ADA claims.

    With regard to Adams’ FMLA interference claim, the Fourth Circuit began its discussion by making note of the salient fact that Adams was never denied FMLA leave; in fact, Adams took three (3) separate leaves, totaling well over the twelve weeks required by the FMLA. Adams could not cite to a single adverse employment action taken against him by the Board. The court rejected Adams’ claim that requiring him to submit to medical examination was an adverse employment action. Under the FMLA, employers are explicitly allowed to solicit medical opinions that will allow the employer to verify the claimed medical condition. The court also rejected Adams’ claim that by requiring his attendance at a pre-disciplinary conference, the Board forced him to work. In certain circumstances, required meetings may unlawfully interrupt an employee’s leave, and the court ruled that a one-time conference that was a legitimate piece of an ongoing investigation, qualified as a lawful interruption of Adams’ leave.

    The Fourth Circuit also upheld the district court’s finding that the Board’s actions were simply not retaliatory. Adams alleged that the Board closed and then re-opened its investigation in retaliation. The Fourth Circuit disagreed, upholding the district court’s finding that the investigation was never concluded and that the Board observed due process requirements in conducting its investigation, including the pre-disciplinary conference. The formal result of the Board’s investigation, the reprimand letter, did not adversely affect Adams’ employment position or his pay and benefits. Nor was Adams’ transfer to the specialized middle school in retaliation, because it was made at the recommendation of his doctor, who suggested Adams be placed in a less stressful school. Furthermore, the salary reduction that Adams allegedly suffered as a result of this transfer was mandated by the union contract.

    With regard to Adams’ ADA discrimination and retaliation claims, the Fourth Circuit again reiterated that Adams must have suffered an adverse employment action of some kind. The ADA forbids an employer from discriminating against an individual with a disability who can perform the essential functions of the position with “reasonable accommodation.” The Fourth Circuit stated that reasonable accommodation does not mean perfect accommodation, and that an accommodation that does not impose undue hardship upon the employee will be considered reasonable. Had the Board failed or refused to reassign Adams, this would have merited ADA litigation. In this case, however, the Board’s accommodations were plainly reasonable. First, Adams’ transfer to the specialized middle school was in accordance with his doctor’s recommendation. Second, the Board acted on Adams’ initial transfer request in a timely matter. Third, the Board sought a less stressful employment environment in light of Adams’ disability. Fourth, Adams did not object to his reassignment and never requested a transfer. Finally, the decrease in Adams’ salary stemmed from a system-wide collective-bargaining agreement. The court reasoned that a move to a less stressful job may naturally be accompanied by a decrease in remuneration. This tradeoff does not invalidate the Board’s decision.

    None of the harms that Adams alleged amounted to retaliation. Reprimands occur with enough frequency in the workplace that they do not automatically qualify as adverse actions. Because Adams could not link these reprimands or the Board’s pursuit of an investigation into the hallway incident and subsequent request for medical examinations to a material change in the conditions of his employment, these harms did not amount to an adverse employment action.