Hill v. Walker

Decision Date16 December 2013
Docket NumberNo. 13–1381.,13–1381.
Citation737 F.3d 1209
PartiesYulanda HILL, Plaintiff–Appellant, v. Carolyn WALKER, individually and in her official capacity as employee of the Department of Human Services, Defendant–Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Eighth Circuit

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

Lucien Ramseur Gillham, argued, Luther Oneal Sutter, on the brief, Benton, AR, for appellant.

Colin Jorgensen, AAG, argued, Regina Haralson, AAG, on the brief, Little Rock, AR, for appellee.

Before LOKEN, COLLOTON, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.

COLLOTON, Circuit Judge.

Yulanda Hill sued her supervisor, Carolyn Walker, individually and in her official capacity as an employee of the Arkansas Department of Human Services (“the Department”), alleging that Walker violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. Hill asserted that Walker contravened these statutes by refusing to grant Hill certain leave time that she requested and by failing to pay her for accrued leave time. Based on the Department's termination of her employment, Hill also brought discrimination and retaliation claims against Walker in her official capacity under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and against the Department under the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701 et seq. The district court 1 granted a motion to dismiss the FMLA and FLSA claims and later granted summary judgment in favor of Walker and the Department on the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims. We affirm.

I.

As Hill is the nonmoving party, we describe the facts in the light most favorable to her. Hill began working for the Department as a Family Service Worker on June 28, 2010. Her job description stated that “frequent exposure to physical and verbal abuse is required,” and that [f]ederally mandated service deadlines coupled with heavy case loads and the life and death nature of the work creates a stressful environment.”

Hill suffers from depression and anxiety, conditions that apparently worsened under the stress of her job. Hill failed to appear at court hearings for her clients on at least two occasions, in January and March 2011, before the events that gave rise to this suit. On both occasions, Hill stated that she missed work because she suffered “frequent anxiety and panic attacks” and was “stressed out.”

On May 24, 2011, Hill sent an e-mail to Walker and seven other officials at the Department informing them that she was “removing [herself] from [a] case.” Her email detailed several instances of harassment and verbal abuse, including racial slurs, from the client in that case. The next day, Hill met with Walker, another supervisor, and the director of the Department. Walker explained that Hill could not unilaterally remove herself from the case and that her experience with the difficult client was the “nature of this business.” The director and Walker offered Hill several other ways to address the situation, including additional training, a “special staffing” where Hill's supervisors would meet with her, the client, and attorneys, and accompaniment by a supervisor or security guard when Hill went on home visits for the case. Hill resisted, leading Walker to say that we need to at least try it.” During the meeting, Hill stated that she was on medication for job stress, was having anxiety attacks, and needed to leave work because of the stress. She left work for the day after the meeting.

The next day, Hill returned to work with a doctor's note placing her under a physician's care for “illness” from May 25 until June 20, 2011. Hill asked to use her accrued compensatory time to cover her leave, which Walker approved, and someone at the Department gave her “FMLA paperwork,” according to her complaint. The Department later determined that Hill was ineligible for FMLA leave because she had not been employed for twelve months.

On May 31, Walker sent Hill a certified letter stating that she was reversing the initial decision to grant Hill all of her requested compensatory leave time because her leave would “impose an unreasonable burden on the agency.” One caseworker had resigned that day and another was out on sick leave. The letter requested that Hill return to work on Monday, June 6. It also stated that the agency would work with Hill to allow her to use her compensatory time, but that she could not use it all in the two and a half weeks that followed.

Hill did not reply to the letter and did not appear for work on June 6. On June 7, Hill e-mailed Walker, asking Walker to “respect [her] time off for medical leave,” and stating that it was “very unprofessional and unethical” of Walker to send her the certified letter demanding she return to work. Hill concluded that she would “return to work on Monday, June 20, 2011 per [her] doctor's orders.” Walker then sent Hill a letter dated June 17, 2011, notifying Hill that because she had violated Department policy by failing to comply with reasonable work-related instructions, Walker had terminated her employment.

Hill filed an internal grievance with the Department, which held a fact-finding hearing on August 16, 2011. At the hearing, Walker stated that she terminated Hill because Hill refused to return to work on June 6 and failed to respond to the request that she return until June 7. The agency official hearing the grievance upheld Hill's termination, concluding that it was “an appropriate response to [Hill's] actions. The termination is due to medical reasons and Ms. Hill's inability to return to work.” Hill sued, and the district court granted Walker's motion to dismiss the FMLA and FLSA claims. Later, the court granted summary judgment for Walker and the Department on the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims. Hill appeals.

II.

We first address the dismissal of Hill's claims under the FMLA. Hill alleges that Walker terminated her so she would not become eligible for FMLA leave. She claims that if Walker had granted her compensatory leave time, then Hill would have become eligible for FMLA leave. Read in the light most favorable to Hill, her complaint alleges that the termination prevented her from exercising her FMLA rights, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1), and that Walker terminated her because she attempted to exercise FMLA rights, a claim that also “likely arises under the rule of § 2615(a)(1) that an employer may not ‘interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise’ rights defined by the FMLA.” Pulczinski v. Trinity Structural Towers, Inc., 691 F.3d 996, 1006 (8th Cir.2012).

Both of Hill's claims fail for the same reason: she is not an “eligible employee” under the FMLA. To be eligible for rights under the FMLA, an employee must have worked for her employer for at least twelve months. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2)(A)(i). Hill's complaint alleges that Hill worked for the Department from June 28, 2010, until June 20, 2011. As this period spans fewer than twelve months, Hill had no FMLA rights when she was terminated.

Hill relies on decisions from other jurisdictions holding that the FMLA protects pre-eligibility requests for post-eligibility leave. See, e.g.,Pereda v. Brookdale Senior Living Cmties., Inc., 666 F.3d 1269, 1274–75 (11th Cir.2012). But even if the rationale of these authorities were adopted in this circuit, it would not aid Hill. Hill did not allege that she requested to take leave after June 28, 2011, the date on which she would have become eligible for FMLA leave. She sought only to take leave before she was eligible, and that request is unprotected by the statute. See Walker v. Elmore Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 379 F.3d 1249, 1253 (11th Cir.2004).

Hill argues that even if she were ineligible for FMLA leave under the terms of the statute, the Department, like the employer in Duty v. Norton-Alcoa Proppants, 293 F.3d 481 (8th Cir.2002), should be estopped from denying her FMLA leave. In Duty, the employer explicitly guaranteed the employee thirty-four weeks of leave under the FMLA, but later terminated him on the ground that he failed to return to work after exhausting all twelve weeks of FMLA leave to which the statute entitled him. This court affirmed the district court's ruling that the employer was equitably estopped from contesting the employee's eligibility to assert a claim under the FMLA, because the employee relied to his detriment on the employer's written guarantee. Id. at 493–94. Unlike the plaintiff in Duty, however, Hill did not allege in her complaint that her employer guaranteed her more FMLA leave than the statute allowed or that she relied to her detriment on such a representation. The complaint asserts only that the Department gave her unspecified “FMLA paperwork.”

Hill was not eligible for leave under the statute, and the Department was not estopped from raising that defense. The district court correctly dismissed Hill's FMLA claims.

III.

Hill next challenges the district court's dismissal of her claim based on the FLSA. She contends that Walker violated the statute by failing to pay Hill for her accrued compensatory leave. The district court dismissed the claim on the ground that Hill did not plead that Walker was personally responsible for making the payments.

Assuming for the sake of analysis that an official may be liable in her individual capacity for a violation of the FLSA, cf. Darby v. Bratch, 287 F.3d 673, 681 (8th Cir.2002), Hill did not plead adequately that Walker violated the statute. Under the FLSA, an employer is “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee and includes a public agency.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). This means, at a minimum, that an individual employee must be “responsible in whole or part for the alleged violation” to incur individual liability. Riordan v. Kempiners, 831 F.2d 690, 694 (7th Cir.1987). While Hill alleged that Walker had the authority to fire her, she did...

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