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Bouts of ‘uncontrollable crying’ might be constructive notice of serious medical condition

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

An Hispanic high school secretary who claimed she transferred to another school after becoming increasingly distraught by coworkers’ derogatory comments about Hispanic students and their families, and then experienced bouts of “uncontrollable crying” in front of her new principal after hearing an associate principal make a similar derogatory statement—leading to her allegedly forced resignation—plausibly asserted that she suffered a racially hostile environment, a federal court in Illinois ruled in denying the school district’s motion to dismiss. Her FMLA interference claim also advanced, despite the school district’s assertion that she failed to give adequate notice of a serious medical condition, since her unusual behavior may have provided constructive notice and her subsequently diagnosed mental health conditions may have prevented her from communicating the nature of her illness (Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, May 15, 2017, Schenkier, S.).

Remarks about Hispanic students and families. The secretary, who began working at one of the district’s high schools in 2010, claimed her coworkers made derogatory remarks about Hispanic students and their families, which became more frequent in the fall of 2014. For example, one of her peers made comments that Hispanic people “came to America” and “want everything for free even though they have new cell phones and their nails done.” Another told her not to speak Spanish at work because they were in “America.”

“Uncontrollable” crying. She complained to the school principal several times, as well as to the assistant principal, but both told her there was nothing they could do since the secretaries’ union was too strong. She became so distraught that she transferred to another high school in June, where an associate principal told her that “those people” (referring to a Mexican family) never pay their bills. Afterwards, she became “extremely distraught and began crying regularly and uncontrollably at work,” and at one point told her new principal that she was overwhelmed and afraid, and unsure if she could continue working. She also reached out to a school counselor and a Latino outreach family coordinator and told them, while crying uncontrollably, that she did not know whether she could continue working for the district.

In response to her concerns regarding her ability to work while in obvious distress, the principal, counselor, and outreach coordinator urged her to decide whether to continue working or to resign. On August 3, she approached the principal while crying uncontrollably and explained that she was confused and overwhelmed, that she had not slept in weeks, had not been eating, and was losing weight. The principal reiterated that she needed to decide whether to resign.

The next day, the principal sent her a text asking for a decision about her job. The secretary stated that she would resign “due to medical reasons” and feeling overwhelmed, and at the principal’s request, provided a written letter of resignation. That same day, the district posted a job vacancy seeking to fill her position. A few days later, she went to the principal’s house and asked to rescind her resignation, but was told that her replacement had been chosen. About two weeks later, she was hospitalized for four days and diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and insomnia.

HWE claim. Declining to dismiss her HWE claim, the court rejected the school district’s assertion that the alleged comments were not offensive enough, were not directed to or about her, and did not “unreasonably” interfere with her work. The district acknowledged she alleged that its employees made “repeated, and arguably, derogatory comments” about Hispanic families. She also claimed the comments interfered with her work performance to the extent that she had to transfer to another school, and that after she did, she again became distraught when she heard a similarly hostile comment from a supervisor. These allegations were sufficient to state a HWE claim at this early stage.

FMLA interference. The secretary also plausibly alleged the school district violated the FMLA by failing to provide her with notice that she had the right to take FMLA leave, and instead forcing her to resign. The court rejected the district’s contention that she failed to provide sufficient notice that she had a serious condition, noting that direct notice may not be possible if the employee “herself was unaware that she was suffering from a serious medical condition.” Moreover, “clear abnormalities in the employee’s behavior may constitute constructive notice of a serious health condition.”

Constructive notice. Though the school district argued it could not have known that she had a serious medical condition due to her short tenure at the new school, she alleged she had known the principal since 2012. This made it plausible that the supervisor would have known her behavior was a “dramatic departure” from her normal behavior. Moreover, her alleged behavior could be considered “highly unusual” for any employee, regardless of tenure.

Indeed, she claimed it was her uncontrollable crying that led the principal and two others to question “her ability to work” and demand to know whether she would resign. And the school district’s assertion that her regular, uncontrollable crying could be considered a normal “reaction to the stress of a new job” was “beside the point,” since the plausibility of the district’s explanation was not at issue.

Unable to communicate nature of illness. Finally, the fact that she herself did not know of her medical condition at the time of her resignation was not fatal to her FMLA claim. The Seventh Circuit has stated that an employee with a mental health condition—such as depression—may be excused from giving direct notice because her medical condition may prevent her from communicating the nature of her illness.