On April 24, 2018, the 7th Circuit affirmed an order of summary judgment in favor of a defendant employer in a Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) interference lawsuit on the basis that the suit was time-barred under the FMLA’s two-year statute of limitations. Sampra v. United States Department of Transportation, No. 17-2621 (7th Cir. 4/24/2018). The plaintiff sued her employer alleging that it unlawfully interfered with her rights under the FMLA by reassigning her to a different position after she returned from pregnancy leave. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendant on the merits, finding that the plaintiff was offered essentially the same position upon her return from FMLA pregnancy leave. The 7th Circuit affirmed, without reaching the merits, on the different ground that the plaintiff’s FMLA lawsuit was time-barred because the plaintiff failed to file her complaint within the applicable two-year statute of limitations. The three-year statute of limitations did not apply because the plaintiff failed to provide evidence that the defendant willfully violated her rights under the FMLA.
A plaintiff must file an FMLA claim not later than 2 years after the date of the last event constituting the alleged violation for which the action is brought. If the employer acted willfully, however, the statute of limitations is extended to three years. The FMLA statute of limitations begins to run from the last event constituting the alleged violation. The FMLA makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right under the FMLA. An employee who takes an FMLA leave of absence is entitled, upon return to work, to be restored to the position she previously held or to an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment. The plaintiff’s FMLA lawsuit was untimely because she filed her complaint more than two years after the statute of limitations began running. The clock started when the plaintiff’s supervisor gave her the assignment that she claims violated her FMLA rights, which assignment was analogous to the denial of FMLA leave.
The more generous three-year statute of limitations under the FMLA did not apply because the plaintiff failed to offer evidence sufficient to support a finding that the defendant willfully violated her FMLA rights. The FMLA does not define the term willful, and the United States Supreme Court has not yet defined the term for purposes of the FMLA statute of limitations. However, the Supreme Court has explained the meaning of “willful” under an analogous statute of limitations contained in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), holding that to apply the three-year limitations period for “willful” violations of the FLSA, the employer must have known that, or shown reckless disregard for whether, its conduct was prohibited by the statute. McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 133 (1988). Thus, to benefit from the three-year statute of limitations under the FMLA, a plaintiff must demonstrate that her employer either knew that the FMLA prohibited its conduct or showed reckless disregard for whether it did. The plaintiff did not offer evidence that her supervisor either knew his conduct would violate the FMLA or showed reckless disregard. Simple awareness that the FMLA is in play is insufficient to demonstrate willfulness. The supervisor believed that he was complying with the FMLA by restoring the plaintiff to the same job title she had held before her FMLA leave at the same pay. There was no evidence that he showed reckless disregard for whether his conduct was prohibited by the FMLA. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim was not saved by the three-year limitations period for willful FMLA violations, and her FMLA interference claim was barred by the two-year statute of limitations.