By Anthony Biraglia

In a published opinion released on June 15, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a Maryland district court’s dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim and grant of summary judgment in the civil case of Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Plaintiff Andrew Adams (“Adams”) alleged that Defendant Anne Arundel County Public Schools (“the School District”), and more specifically the Board of Education (“the Board”), violated his rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), and Maryland state law. The district court dismissed the state law and Title VII claims, and granted summary judgment to the School District on both the FMLA and ADA claims. Adams appealed the summary judgment decision. The Court found no merit to Adams’s allegations that Board (1) interfered with his medical leaves, (2) retaliated against him for those leaves, (3) discriminated and retaliated against him on the basis of his disability, and (4) failed to accommodate his condition, and thus it affirmed the district court’s ruling.

Incident with Student, Medical Leaves, and Reassignment

Adams, an assistant middle school principal in the School District, was involved in a physical altercation with a student on January 19, 2010, that resulted in investigations by both Child Protective Services (“CPS”) and the Board. Adams was temporarily reassigned until a February 24, 2010, meeting with Board investigators, after which he was placed back at his original school. Although Adams, asserting he was shown a document at the February 24 meeting clearing him of all charges, believed the Board’s investigation was over at this point, the Board denied that it had shown him such a document and continued its investigation. On April 12, The Board notified Adams of a May 6, 2010, pre-disciplinary conference, which was delayed four days to allow Adams’s attorney to attend. Two weeks later, he was issued a formal reprimand, and the Board took no further disciplinary action.

Upon reassignment to his original school on February 25, 2010, Adams went on the first of three medical leaves. This leave came at the advice of an internal medicine specialist who diagnosed Adams with stress, anxiety, and high blood pressure resulting from the January 19 incident. After returning to school on March 3, 2010, Adams again went on leave after being “berated” by the principal and suffering a panic attack. Adams claimed he was berated again, this time in front of other staff, when he returned on March 8., 2010. Two weeks later he began his third leave, when a psychiatrist diagnosed him with acute stress disorder. Both Adams’s psychiatrist and the Board’s psychiatrist recommended that Adams be assigned to a lower-stress environment when he returned to work.

After being cleared to work on July 28, 2010, Adams was reassigned to a significantly smaller school for children with behavioral issues. Pursuant to a union contract, his pay remained the same for the first two years at the new school, and was subsequently reduced by less than one percent based on his position at a smaller school. Adams was also disqualified from some discretionary bonuses for administrators at larger schools. By all accounts, Adams “excelled” at the new school.

Adams Files Suit

Adams originally filed this lawsuit in Maryland state court, and the School District removed to federal court (presumably on the basis of federal question jurisdiction). The district court, after allowing Adams to amend his original complaint, dismissed the Title VII and state law claims. After discovery, the district court granted summary judgment to the School District on both the FMLA and ADA claims.

Adams appealed the grant of summary judgment on the FMLA and ADA claims. The Fourth Circuit reviews summary judgment motions de novo, viewing all facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.

The Board Did Not Interfere with Adams FMLA Rights or Retaliate Against Him for Exercising Those Rights

An interference claim under the FMLA consists of three elements. The employee must demonstrate that (1) she is entitled to an FMLA benefit, (2) her employer interfered with the provision of that benefit, and (3) the interference caused harm. The Court noted that interference claims generally arise when an employee is denied FMLA benefits, which was not the case with Adams. However, discouraging an employee from taking FMLA leave through adverse employment actions can also constitute interference. The Court dismissed Adams’s contentions that unnecessary medical examinations (which were in fact authorized by the FMLA), the pre-disciplinary conference, and the verbal and written reprimands he received constituted actionable interference under the FMLA. In the Court’s view, none of these actions were adverse employment actions within the context of the statute.

The Court also found that the Board’s actions toward Adams were not retaliatory. Both actions that Adams alleged were retaliatory, namely reopening the investigation and transferring him to a smaller school, were simply not retaliatory in the Court’s view. The Court observed that the investigation was never closed, and thus could not have been reopened to retaliate against Adams, and that the transfer was actually recommended by Adams’s own doctors. In fact, the Court opined, the Board made efforts to accommodate Adams rather than retaliate against him.

The Board Did Not Discriminate or Retaliate Against Adams Based on His Disability

Adams’s claims under the ADA arose out of the same operative facts as his claims under the FMLA. Specifically, Adams alleged that the verbal attacks by the principal, the continued investigation, the written reprimands, and the medical examinations constituted ADA violations by the Board, and the transfer to a smaller school was failure to reasonably accommodate his disability.

An element of both the discrimination and retaliation aspects of Adams’s ADA claim is that the plaintiff must have suffered an adverse employment action, which the Fourth Circuit defined as “some direct or indirect impact on an individual’s employment as opposed to harms immaterially related to them.” The Board’s actions of which Adams complained did not, in the eyes of the Court, rise to the level of adverse employment actions. As the Court pointed out in its analysis of the FMLA claim, the decision to transfer Adams to a different school (which was the Board’s only action that had any material affect on Adams’s employment), was made at the behest of Adams’s own doctors.

Affirmed

Because Adams failed to create a triable issue of fact on both his FMLA and ADA claims, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment to the School District.

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