Nagle v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School Dist., No. 08-2374.

CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
Writing for the CourtBoudin
Citation576 F.3d 1
PartiesKathleen NAGLE, Plaintiff, Appellant, v. ACTON-BOXBOROUGH REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant, Appellee.
Docket NumberNo. 08-2374.
Decision Date30 July 2009
576 F.3d 1
Kathleen NAGLE, Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
ACTON-BOXBOROUGH REGIONAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendant, Appellee.
No. 08-2374.
United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.
Heard May 7, 2009.
Decided July 30, 2009.

Jason R. Powalisz with whom Mark A. Hickernell, Alan J. McDonald and McDonald, Lamond & Canzoneri were on brief for appellant.

Deidre Brennan Regan with whom Deborah I. Ecker and Brody, Hardoon, Perkins & Kesten were on brief for appellee.

Before BOUDIN, HANSEN,* and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges.

BOUDIN, Circuit Judge.


This case presents the question whether equitable estoppel may be applied against a government employer based upon the employer's oral assurances to the employee of coverage under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq. (2006). The employer denies both the alleged assurances and the claim that the employee was terminated for taking leave; but because the employee's case was dismissed

576 F.3d 2

on summary judgment, the denials are of no consequence and we assume arguendo the latter's version of events. Ruiz-Rosa v. Rullan, 485 F.3d 150, 155 (1st Cir.2007).

At the time of the events, Kathleen Nagle had been working since the year 2000 as a part time employee in the position of school monitor for the Acton-Boxborough Regional School District in Massachusetts. On January 12, 2004, Nagle requested leave under the FMLA in order to tend to her ailing husband. The FMLA entitles eligible employees to take twelve weeks of unpaid leave during any twelve-month period to care for a family member who is seriously ill. See Engelhardt v. S.P. Richards Co., Inc., 472 F.3d 1, 3 (1st Cir.2006).

To be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must have worked at least 1,250 hours in the 12-month period before taking leave. 29 U.S.C. § 2611(2). Nagle was not eligible; in the 12 months prior to her request, she had worked only 554 hours. However, she asserts that George Frost, the district's deputy superintendent, told her that she could take FMLA leave. Frost says he told Nagle she was not eligible but could take non-FMLA leave with continued health insurance, but, on the motion for summary judgment against her, her version governs. Nagle took leave until April 2004, writing Frost in March to thank him for allowing her to take FMLA leave; it appears no answer was ever made to the letter.

In February 2005, Nagle took several days off to care for her husband and she says that the principal's assistant at her school suggested to Nagle that she take family medical leave. Nagle requested FMLA leave in a letter dated February 18, 2005, but does not claim to have received a reply, and then took off eight weeks of leave. In March 2005, Nagle says she thanked Frost for granting her FMLA leave and that he never explained that she was not entitled to FMLA leave. Frost disputes this as well; again, Nagle's account must be assumed.

Once Nagle returned to work in April 2005, she says she met again with Frost who told her that additional FMLA leave was available if necessary, and after her husband reentered the hospital, she again in early May 2005 took what she believed to be FMLA leave. Nagle's husband died at the beginning of June. She says that she was told not to worry about rushing to return and that Frost told her that she had "nothing to worry about." No writing from Frost confirms these assurances, but we assume that they occurred.

The school year ended in June 2005. On July 12, 2005, Nagle's employment with the school district was terminated. Nagle concluded that this was because she had taken leave and in August 2007, Nagle filed suit against the school district for violating the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). The school district countered that Nagle was not eligible for FMLA leave and that her job ended because the district had completed construction work on a new building and no longer needed monitors in the parking lots.

In due course, the school district moved for summary judgment on the ground that Nagle was not eligible for FMLA leave and as a result had no claim. She responded that the school district was estopped from relying on her lack of eligibility because of Frost's alleged assurances and that it had taken her leave into account in terminating her position. After further briefing the district court refused to apply estoppel against the school district and granted summary judgment in its favor.

Nagle now appeals, and the central issue—whether equitable estoppel is available

576 F.3d 3

in the present circumstances—presents a legal issue reviewed de novo. Southex Exhibitions, Inc. v. Rhode Island Builders Ass'n, Inc., 279 F.3d 94, 104 (1st Cir.2002). In urging estoppel, Nagel relies principally on federal precedent and neither side argues that state law should apply. Because this position is plausible and uncontested and because it might not matter anyway, we accept the premise without endorsing it. Pampillonia v. RJR Nabisco, Inc., 138 F.3d 459, 461 n. 4 (2d Cir.1998).1

Where an employee properly takes FMLA leave, the employee cannot be discharged for exercising a right provided by the statute, but can still be discharged for independent reasons. Kohls v. Beverly Enters. Wis., Inc., 259 F.3d 799, 804-05 (7th Cir.2001). The governing regulations provide that an employer "cannot use the taking of FMLA leave as a negative factor in [an] employment action[]." 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(a)(1), (c) (2005). On this appeal, we assume arguendo that Nagle's taking of leave did play some role in her termination.

Nagle does not claim that she was in fact eligible for FMLA leave, but she argues that the school district is estopped from denying coverage. The contours of equitable estoppel doctrine, where directed against a private party, are conventional. The doctrine seeks to prevent injustice when an individual detrimentally and predictably relies on the misrepresentation of another. Mimiya Hospital, Inc. SNF v. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services sums up the doctrine thusly:

[A] party seeking to assert estoppel must demonstrate that (1) the party to be estopped made a "definite misrepresentation of fact to another person having reason to believe that the other [would] rely upon it"; (2) the party seeking estoppel relied on the misrepresentations to its detriment; and (3) the "reliance [was] reasonable in that the party claiming the estoppel did not know nor should it have known that its adversary's conduct was misleading."

331 F.3d 178, 182 (1st Cir.2003) (alterations in original) (citation omitted).

If the school district were a private employer, Nagle would be entitled to a trial as to whether Frost did misrepresent matters, as to her reliance and on the reasonableness of any such reliance—the last being a "mixed" question that is at bottom normative but is regularly given to a jury where the matter is reasonably debatable. See Grande v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 436 F.3d 277, 283 (1st Cir.2006).

But under federal precedent, governments in the past have not been subject to estoppel or, more recently, have been held not subject to estoppel, save exceptional situations that we have called "hen's-teeth rare," Costa v. INS, 233 F.3d 31, 38 (1st Cir.2000).2 Various reasons have been given

576 F.3d 4

for excepting governments, e.g., Heckler v. Cmty. Health Serv., 467 U.S. 51, 65-66, 104 S.Ct. 2218, 81 L.Ed.2d 42 (1984), but-like many such limitations in favor of the state—the explanation mingles history, doctrine (e.g., sovereign immunity; agency), and practical concerns. Cf. Kawananakoa v. Polyblank, 205 U.S. 349, 353, 27 S.Ct. 526, 51 L.Ed. 834 (1907) (Holmes, J.).

As with sovereign immunity, Congress has made exceptions but, in the case of estoppel, the exceptions are far narrower and more sporadic than the categorical limitations in the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2680 (2006).3 Possibly, the problem is harder to solve: often, a claim of honest reliance is on one side of the scale and, on the other, justified concerns to assure enforcement of the law, about the lack of authority by officials to vary it, and about the prospect of spurious law suits.

The Supreme Court has been very cautious in language, and even more cautious in practice, about extending estoppel to the government. It has said, but only in a dictum, that "affirmative misconduct" by the government can lead to estoppel, Heckler, 467 U.S. at 60, 104 S.Ct. 2218, but most estoppel claims involve misstatements so the quoted phrase, if read broadly, would wipe out the immunity; and, in practice, the Supreme Court has almost never estopped the government—outside of criminal cases or deportation.4

Tellingly, the Supreme Court's most recent pronouncement, in Richmond, is a step back from Heckler's dictum; in Richmond, the Supreme Court once again rejected a claim of estoppel against the government on the ground that it would undercut the policy of the statute in question. 496 U.S. at 424. Richmond's underlying rationale—the need for enforcement of the law—is basically the argument against allowing estoppel against the government. The law here is that Nagle did not have enough hours for FMLA leave.

This court, too, has not quite closed the door to exceptions but has repeatedly refused to apply estoppel against the government in ordinary situations where a private party would or might have been estopped.5 In one case we used estoppel language in holding a statute of limitations tolled based on government representations. Ramirez-Carlo v. United States, 496 F.3d 41, 48-50 (1st Cir.2007). But equitable tolling of statutes of limitation has long operated against the government, see Irwin v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89, 111 S.Ct. 453, 112 L.Ed.2d 435 (1990), and the case is largely a variation on that theme.

Statutes of limitation are a special case because allowing an out-of-time law suit

576 F.3d 5

does not create new substantive obligations but merely requires the government...

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35 practice notes
  • Wanamaker v. Town of Westport Bd. of Educ., No. 3:11–CV–1791 MPS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)
    • 27 Marzo 2014
    ...misconduct” on the part of the Government is required to give rise to estoppel); see also Nagle v. ActonBoxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist., 576 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir.2009) (discussing the rationale for this distinction). The second and more significant reason is that Plaintiff does not contend, nor d......
  • Wanamaker v. Town of Westport Bd. of Educ., No. 3:11–CV–1791 MPS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)
    • 27 Marzo 2014
    ...misconduct” on the part of the Government is required to give rise to estoppel); see also Nagle v. ActonBoxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist., 576 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir.2009) (discussing the rationale for this distinction).The second and more significant reason is that Plaintiff does not contend, nor do......
  • In re Redondo Constr. Corp., CASE NO. 02-02887 (ESL)
    • United States
    • United States Bankruptcy Courts. Tenth Circuit. U.S. Bankruptcy Court — District of Puerto Rico
    • 8 Abril 2019
    ...an individual detrimentally and predictably relies on the misrepresentation of another." Nagle v. Acton-Boxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist., 576 F. 3d 1 (1st Cir. 2009). In Mimiya Hosp., Inc. SNF v. United States HHS, 331 F. 3d 178, 182, the First Circuit explained the doctrine of equitable es......
  • Gourdeau v. City of Newton, CIVIL ACTION NO. 13–12832–WGY
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • 2 Marzo 2017
    ...a family member, such as a parent, with a serious health condition. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1) ; Nagle v. Acton–Boxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist. , 576 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2009) ; Hodgens , 144 F.3d at 159. Upon an employee's return from qualified FMLA leave, her employer must reinstate her to the sa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
35 cases
  • Wanamaker v. Town of Westport Bd. of Educ., No. 3:11–CV–1791 MPS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)
    • 27 Marzo 2014
    ...misconduct” on the part of the Government is required to give rise to estoppel); see also Nagle v. ActonBoxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist., 576 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir.2009) (discussing the rationale for this distinction). The second and more significant reason is that Plaintiff does not contend, nor d......
  • Wanamaker v. Town of Westport Bd. of Educ., No. 3:11–CV–1791 MPS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 2nd Circuit. United States District Court (Connecticut)
    • 27 Marzo 2014
    ...misconduct” on the part of the Government is required to give rise to estoppel); see also Nagle v. ActonBoxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist., 576 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir.2009) (discussing the rationale for this distinction).The second and more significant reason is that Plaintiff does not contend, nor do......
  • In re Redondo Constr. Corp., CASE NO. 02-02887 (ESL)
    • United States
    • United States Bankruptcy Courts. Tenth Circuit. U.S. Bankruptcy Court — District of Puerto Rico
    • 8 Abril 2019
    ...an individual detrimentally and predictably relies on the misrepresentation of another." Nagle v. Acton-Boxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist., 576 F. 3d 1 (1st Cir. 2009). In Mimiya Hosp., Inc. SNF v. United States HHS, 331 F. 3d 178, 182, the First Circuit explained the doctrine of equitable es......
  • Gourdeau v. City of Newton, CIVIL ACTION NO. 13–12832–WGY
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. United States District Courts. 1st Circuit. District of Massachusetts
    • 2 Marzo 2017
    ...a family member, such as a parent, with a serious health condition. 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1) ; Nagle v. Acton–Boxborough Reg'l Sch. Dist. , 576 F.3d 1, 2 (1st Cir. 2009) ; Hodgens , 144 F.3d at 159. Upon an employee's return from qualified FMLA leave, her employer must reinstate her to the sa......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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