The situation is not that uncommon. An employer learns of a performance incident and the employee involved promptly requests FMLA leave. The employer then must decide how to address the incident while avoiding the risk of an FMLA or ADA claim. Will the law protect an employer that provides the employee FMLA leave while investigating the misconduct allegations against that employee?

Such employer efforts were upheld in the Fourth Circuit’s decision dismissing FMLA and ADA claims in Adams v. Anne Arundel County Public Schools (4th Cir. June 15, 2015). The plaintiff, Andrew Adams, an assistant principal, was accused of physically accosting a student at his middle school. Child Protective Services investigated and cleared Adams. The School Board launched its own investigation and temporarily reassigned Adams to another school. While that investigation was ongoing, Adams was set to return to his original school but requested, and was granted, FMLA leave for stress, anxiety and high blood pressure related to the abuse allegations. When Adams returned to work a few weeks later, he alleged that the principal verbally berated him. Adams requested and was granted a second leave beginning that same day. Adams returned to work yet again and claimed the principal berated him again. Two weeks later, Adams began a third leave that exhausted his FMLA entitlement. During this third leave, the Board required Adams to meet three times with a psychologist of its choosing. That doctor and Adams’s doctor required that Adams be assigned to a lower stress environment upon his return. Also during this leave, the Board met with Adams and his attorney regarding its investigation and issued a written reprimand to him.  The Board later notified Adams that he would be transferred to a smaller school with a lower stress environment. According to the applicable labor contract, there would be no reduction in Adams’ salary for at least two years despite his being at a smaller school.

Adams’s claimed that by the reprimands and transfer, his employer interfered with his FMLA rights, discriminated against him in violation of the ADA, and retaliated against him for exercising his rights under both the FMLA and ADA. The court rejected his claims, noting that the right to reinstatement after FMLA leave is not “absolute” but is limited to the position or equivalent that he would have retained absent taking leave. Additionally, the Court noted that Adams was not denied any leave and that  the FMLA expressly permits an employer to seek a second medical opinion related to how long an employee would be out and/or how to fashion an appropriate environment for the employee’s return to work. The court also noted that the Board’s investigation was intrinsically connected to its duty to ensure the safety of its students and that the Board accorded Adams due process at every step of its investigation.

The court dismissed the ADA claims based on similar analysis, holding that Adams’ transfer to a school where his pay ultimately may be reduced by less than 1% was not an adverse employment action. The court also noted that the Board acted appropriately by making timely efforts to effectuate the doctors’ recommendations to reasonably accommodate Adams by returning him to work in a lower stress environment. The court noted that “less stressful jobs may on occasion be less remunerative. That tradeoff does not invalidate the Board’saction [transferring Adams as a reasonable accommodation] in these circumstances.”

Notably, this decision centered on an investigation that started before any FMLA leave or notice of disability; and, while that investigation continued for several months, the employer followed its established investigation process and communicated with the employee throughout the process. This careful approach contributed to the Board’s successful defense.