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Seventh Circuit Upholds Attorney Fee Win in FMLA Action

August 25, 2022 | Posted in : Fee Entitlement / Recoverability, Fee Issues on Appeal, Fee Jurisprudence, Fee Statute, Practice Area: Civil Rights / Public Interest, Trial / Jury / Verdict

A recent Law 360 story by Caleb Drickey, “7th Circ. Upholds Teacher’s Win In FMLA Suit” reports that the Seventh Circuit upheld a pair of lower courts' decisions to declare that a Wisconsin governmental entity violated the Family and Medical Leave Act by de facto demoting a concussed teacher, and to grant her attorney fees for her bench trial victory.  In a published opinion, a three-judge panel ruled that the lower court was within its authority to issue a damages-free declaration that the Cooperative Educational Service Agency 5 violated the FMLA by taking away teacher Sarah Simon's work responsibilities after she returned from medical leave. The panel further held that the law mandated the payment of attorney fees in the case of a judgment in favor of workers.

"If this case involved an accomplished neurosurgeon returning from leave to a position that required only tracking the hospital's inventory, we doubt that anyone would question whether the surgeon suffered prejudice," U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Kirsch said on behalf of the panel. "Simon … suffered harm for which the FMLA provides a remedy."

The opinion stems from the Cooperative's retraction of Simon's job responsibilities after she returned to work in the wake of a workplace concussion.  Although the Cooperative, which provides staff and equipment to 35 school districts in the state, maintained Simon's previous salary, a district court found that Simon's effective demotion to a support staffer prejudiced her, and it granted her a declaratory judgment and roughly $60,000 in attorney fees after a bench trial.

The panel ruled that a court-issued declaration of FMLA violations absent any monetary damages or injunctions to re-hire Simon, who has since taken another job, was within scope of the relief promised by the law.  The FMLA authorized courts to dispense "equitable relief," an undefined term that courts have interpreted to encompass binding orders to hire or promote workers.

The authority to grant declaratory judgments, the panel therefore concluded, could reasonably be inferred.  "It would make little sense for the FMLA to permit courts to grant these heavy-handed remedies yet bar them from using a lighter touch through entry of a declaratory judgment," the panel held.

The panel also affirmed the lower court's finding that the Cooperative prejudiced and harmed Simon even without suffering any cuts to her pay or benefits.  Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's 2002 decision in Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide Inc. , the panel held that the demotion of workers returning from medical leave to positions for which they were overly qualified caused injury.

The Commission's remission of Simon's ability to plan lessons and lead classes, the panel therefore concluded, unfairly created a gap in her resume, prejudiced her, and put her employer on the hook for remedies including declaratory judgments and the payment of attorney fees.

The panel affirmed the lower court's separate order of a $59,773.62 attorney fee bill, too.  That fee bill was not an improper imposition of punitive damages, the panel ruled, but was required by the text of the FMLA in the case of a judgment in favor of workers.  "The district judge merely applied the FMLA as written, which expressly requires attorney's fees after a judgment entered in the plaintiff's favor," the panel held.