As board members are acutely aware, school districts often become the target of litigation because they are perceived by the public as having “deep pockets.” While board members know that this perception is disconnected from reality, boards nevertheless must be prepared to confront litigation regardless whether the complaint is filed by a parent, employee, or member of the general public. In defending against all litigation, the board, in consultation with the board attorney, may consider taking a proactive stance, even where the initial efforts are not immediately successful because preliminary actions can disclose significant weaknesses in the opposition and may lead to a settlement or perhaps dismissal of the complaint. It should be noted however, that just as a preliminary motion may reveal weaknesses in the complainant’s position, the motion may similarly disclose weaknesses in the board’s defense of the litigation.

In Cipully v. Lacy Twp. Bd. of Educ., the board was confronted with a federal filing alleging the board failed to comply with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) involving an employee who claimed the board failed to accommodate her medical condition. The board opposed the complaint by filing a motion to dismiss under the court rules. Importantly, in filing a motion to dismiss, which  can be filed by either party, the court must assume that all facts set forth by the party opposing the dismissal are true and the court must construe facts and rules in the light most favorable to that party. In contrast, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff need only provide a sufficient factual basis and that the claim to relief is plausible. Finally, in seeking dismissal, the party seeking dismissal is obligated to demonstrate that a proper claim was not presented.

In this matter, Cipully was hired by the district as a food services manager for the 2017-2018 school year. At the conclusion of that year, the administration provided a positive evaluation and recommended re-employment; the recommendation was adopted by the board. Shortly after her renewal, in late August 2018, Cipully notified the district’s business administrator that she would be required to undergo surgery and as a result, would need to take time off from her duties. The business administrator acceded to her request, with the caveat that she resume her duties before the start of the upcoming school year.

Shortly thereafter, Cipully underwent the surgery and during her leave, responded to inquiries from her immediate supervisor, the assistant business administrator. After the procedure, Cipully claimed that she returned to work, against her doctor’s orders, prior to the start of the 2018-2019 school year. Following her return, Cipully asserted that the district failed to provide any information pertaining to the Family Medical Leave Act or medical accommodations despite the fact that she was still in pain and notified her supervisor on both counts. Shortly after a follow-up visit to her physician, Cipully advised the district that she was still in pain and that she had not been medically cleared to return to work. Cipully was then placed on administrative leave pending a board meeting to discuss her “poor performance and inappropriate conduct.” The board subsequently removed Cipully from her director position. In response, Cipully filed the above-mentioned claims.

In seeking to dismiss the complaint, the school district argued that because Cipully’s complaint failed even to allege that she “unequivocally requested and was denied FMLA leave,” the  allegations in the complaint were insufficient to demonstrate proper notice of her intent to take such leave. The court, however, relied on judicial precedent for the proposition that the appropriate test was not whether the employee provided each detail necessary to determine if the FMLA applies, rather the appropriate question was how the information conveyed to the employer was reasonably interpreted. In the Cipully case, the court explained that the above requirement is not a “formalistic or stringent standard” and further explained, “[a]n employee is not expected to specifically invoke the FMLA, but must convey enough information for an employer to inquire or infer that the FMLA is being invoked.” Moreover, according to the court, the employer has a duty to inquire or infer that the FMLA is implicated in the request. Accordingly, the court, interpreting the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, dismissed the district’s motion.

School board members are encouraged to discuss this decision, the requirements of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and other leave laws with their board attorney. For additional information, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at (609) 278-5254.