E-Alert Case Updates
United States District Court for the District of Columbia Denies University’s Motion to Dismiss Employee’s Claims of Discrimination and Retaliatory Action After Terminating Employment Following High Risk Pregnancy
Kashawna Holmes v. University of the District of Columbia
Kashawna Holmes started working as a Program Coordinator for the University of the District of Columbia on March 1, 2013. Her position’s existence was dependent upon the availability of grant funding. However, Holmes was assured that her position “was permanent for all practical purposes,” and informed that the grant has been renewed for the last thirty (30) years. While there was “no automatic right to continued employment” her position was “essentially [an] indefinite term appointment.” On October 25, 2013, the University extended her appointment through September 30, 2014. Later, Holmes learned that her position had been funded through at least 2015.
In November 2013, Elgoria Harrison became Holmes’s new supervisor, and two months later, Holmes learned that she was pregnant. Holmes had previously suffered several miscarriages, therefore doctors deemed her pregnancy “high risk.” Holmes decided to keep the news of her pregnancy to herself.
Harrison decided to out Holmes’s condition at a staff meeting in early 2014 by pointing at Holmes’s stomach and asking her if there was something she needed to tell her. Holmes reluctantly confirmed her pregnancy, only to be confronted with more personal questions about her pregnancy by Harrison in front of her coworkers.
In early April 2014, Holmes took a sick day to attend two doctors’ appointments, which she requested leave for in advance. As a courtesy, Holmes notified her coworkers that she would be gone for the day. Two days after her appointments, Harrison responded to the email writing, “I’m curious. Does your doctor require an all day appointment? I have not know[n] doctor’s appointments to be all day; however, you may have a special case.” Upset and confused, Holmes went to the director of human resources, who told her to answer Harrison’s questions.
Following her conversation with human resources, Holmes “felt that she had no choice” but to disclose that her pregnancy was high risk. Harrison continued to bombard her with personal questions about her pregnancy, such as “[w]hat makes you high risk?” Holmes contacted human resources again, and this time spoke with a different official. The new official was shocked at Harrison’s inappropriate line of questioning and told Holmes not to explain anything.
On July 3, 2014, Holmes was diagnosed with intrauterine fetal growth restriction and preterm labor, which resulted in “complete bed rest” for Holmes. She requested FMLA medical leave for the period of July 7, 2014, to her expected delivery date on September 20, 2014. Human resources assured Holmes that under the D.C. Family Medical Leave Act (DCFLMA), her job would be protected during her leave.
On September 2, 2014, Holmes gave birth. Not long after, Holmes noticed an email from Harrison in her personal account from August 29. The email told Holmes that the University “was not renewing her appointment” and that “her employment would end on September 30, 2014. Harrison did not give a reason for her termination—her position was not defunded; the University had merely replaced her with a male employee.
Holmes’s complaint asserts nine (9) counts against the University for violations of the DCFMLA, the D.C. Human Rights Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The University moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
Under the DCFLMA, employees are entitled to 16 workweeks of “family leave”1 and 16 workweeks of “medical leave”2 during any 24-month period. D.C. Code §§ 32-502(a), 32-503(a). The DCFLMA guarantees that a returning employee “shall be restored” to the position she held when she left or to another equivalent position. Id. § 32-505(d). However, the DCFLMA “does not create an absolute right to reinstatement.” Wash. Convention Ctr. Auth. V. Johnson, 953 A.2d 1064, 1077 (D.C. 2008). Reinstatement is not necessary if the employer can show that “[the] employee would not otherwise have been employed at the time reinstatement is requested.” Id.
Here, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia found that Holmes took 11 week of medical leave from July 7 to September 20, 2014. Holmes then took almost two workweeks of family leave for the birth of her child from September 20 to September 30, 2014. At this point, Holmes was entitled to take an additional 14 weeks of family leave and to “be restored” to her position of an equivalent upon her return. Neither event occurred because the University terminated her effective September 30. Additionally, nothing in the complaint alleged that the University would have declined to renew Holmes’s employment, even if Holmes had not taken protected medical leave. Therefore, the court held that Holmes stated a claim for DCFLMA interference.
Holmes also alleges that the University declined to renew her employment because of unlawful retaliatory or discriminatory animus. The University argued that Holmes’s “factual allegations” were simply “a couple of isolated statements,” “bald speculation,” and “conclusory allegations . . . bereft of any facts.” While the court acknowledged that it’s not their role to decide whether Holmes’s claims are ultimately persuasive, they did find that they were sufficient to “nudge” her claims of discrimination “across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Thus, Holmes properly stated a claim under unlawful retaliation or discriminatory animus.
Finally, Holmes alleged disability discrimination under the ADA. The two elements of a disability discrimination claim are: “(1) the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action (2) because of the plaintiff’s disability.” Adeyemi v. District of Columbia, 525 F.2d 1222, 1226 (D.C. Cir. 2008). Here, the court found that Holmes has alleged both of these elements. Holmes has properly stated a claim of discrimination under the ADA. Therefore, the court denied the University’s motion to dismiss as to all nine counts.
_______________1 Family leave is available for the birth of the employee’s child. D.C. Code § 32-502(a)(1).
2 Medical leave is available to an employee who “becomes unable to perform the functions of the employee’s position because of a serious health condition. D.C. Code § 32-503(a).
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