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Court Allows School Employee who Cared for Granddaughter to Pursue FMLA Claims

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October 17, 2008

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently ruled against a school district in an employee's lawsuit under the Family and Medical Leave Act, finding that the district court incorrectly granted summary judgment for the district on the employee's claim that he was unlawfully fired for taking FMLA leave to care for his granddaughter. Martin v. Brevard County Public Schools. The district placed Anthony Martin on a performance improvement plan after he received an unsatisfactory performance review. Shortly thereafter, Martin requested and the school district granted FMLA leave to care for his granddaughter while his daughter, a single mother and Army Reserve member, was expected to be away on deployment. Although his daughter was never deployed, Martin took his FMLA leave as scheduled. In June 2004, while Martin was still on leave, the district informed him that it would not renew his contract due to his failure to complete the performance improvement plan, thus terminating his employment.

Martin sued, arguing that the district's failure to renew his contract violated the FMLA. The FMLA affords eligible employees twelve weeks of unpaid leave in any one-year period "because of the birth of a son or daughter of the employee and in order to care for such son or daughter." Under the FMLA, "son or daughter" includes "a child of a person standing in loco parentis." The district court rejected Martin’s claims, holding that no reasonable jury could find that Martin was acting in loco parentis for his granddaughter, and that the school district lawfully terminated his employment for failing to complete his performance improvement plan.

The appellate court reversed, holding that a jury could find that Martin acted in loco parentis for his granddaughter given that he provided her a home, financial support, food, and childcare while his daughter was at work or training with the Army Reserve. Further, it found sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude that Martin failed to complete his performance improvement plan because of his FMLA leave.

This decision highlights two key aspects of the FMLA. First, employees may be entitled to leave to care for a child even if the employee is not the biological or legal parent or guardian of the child, if he or she acts in loco parentis to the child. Second, employers must proceed with caution before taking adverse action against an employee for failing to complete a job requirement if the failure is arguably attributable to the fact that the employee is on FMLA leave.

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