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Date: 04-24-2018

Case Style:

Sara Sampra v. United States Department of Transportation

Northern District of Illinois Courthouse - Chicago, Illinois

Case Number: 17-2621

Judge: Hamilton

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on appeal from the Northern District of Illinois (Cook County)

Plaintiff's Attorney: Richard David Grossman

Defendant's Attorney: Douglas G. Snodgrass

Description: Sara Sampra sued her employer,
the United States Department of Transportation, alleging that
it interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical
Leave Act by reassigning her to a different position after she
returned from childbirth leave. The district court granted
summary judgment for the defendant on the merits, finding
that Sampra was offered essentially the same position upon
2 No. 17‐2621
her return from leave. Sampra has appealed. We affirm,
though on the different ground that Sampra’s lawsuit is timebarred.
We do not reach the merits. Sampra failed to file her
complaint within the applicable two‐year statute of limitations.
The more forgiving three‐year statute of limitations
does not apply because Sampra failed to provide evidence
that the department willfully violated her FMLA rights.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
From October 2009 to April 2014, Sampra was an electrical
engineer with the Federal Aviation Administration, an agency
within the Department of Transportation. Electrical engineers
who are assigned to the field in the FAA’s Central Service Area
typically do not work out of an office; they are assigned to
field positions at airports across the central portion of the
United States. The parties refer to these employees as “field
Initially, Sampra was assigned to a field position at Midway
Airport in Chicago. Her supervisor eventually assigned
her to oversee technical support services contract work releases
for the Chicago office. Overseeing these work releases
involved submitting project requirements to an outside contractor,
which in turn would report back to Sampra with its
understanding of the project, cost estimates, and a timeframe
for completion. Sampra would then review and authorize the
project proposal. Managing the work releases required little
to no field work, so in that role Sampra spent nearly all of her
time in the office. She retained the same job title, though, and
her job description continued to require up to 100% travel and
field work.
No. 17‐2621 3
Sampra’s FMLA leave began on January 6, 2014 and lasted
until she was ready to return to work on March 10. While she
was on leave, the supervisor who had given her the desk assignment
was transferred and a new supervisor, Matthew Sibert,
took over. While Sampra was still on leave, Sibert assigned
to himself the task of overseeing the work releases that
Sampra had overseen. Sibert testified that he could perform
in one hour per week the work that Sampra had been doing
full‐time, that he believed that overseeing the work releases
was not appropriate work for a full‐time field engineer, and
that he had never assigned a field engineer working under
him to manage those work releases.
On March 21, 2014, shortly after Sampra’s return, Sibert
initially assigned her to a field project at Chicago’s O’Hare
Airport. That project would have required Sampra to work on
an aviation runway overnight, from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. But
Sampra never actually worked the overnight assignment at
O’Hare. For the first three weeks of the assignment, Sibert allowed
Sampra to work regular daytime hours so that she
could secure necessary childcare. Before she would have had
to start the overnight assignment at O’Hare, Sampra requested
reassignment to the position of drafting coordinator.
On April 11, Sibert notified Sampra that effective April 20 she
would be transferred to the position of drafting coordinator.
The drafting coordinator position is in a lower pay band than
electrical engineer, but Sampra retained her electrical engineer
Sampra filed this lawsuit under the FMLA on April 18,
2016, a little over two years after her assignment to work at
O’Hare. In support of her claim, Sampra highlighted two key
differences between her positions before and after her FMLA
4 No. 17‐2621
leave. First, the location of her work changed from an office to
an aviation runway that lacked access to a toilet, let alone a
lactation room. Second, her shift changed from regular daytime
hours to overnight hours. Claiming that her former supervisor
had “set a precedent” by assigning her to oversee the
work releases from the office, Sampra argued that she was entitled
to reinstatement to an equivalent assignment upon return
from FMLA leave. The district court granted summary
judgment for the department on the merits.
II. Analysis
We do not reach the merits of Sampra’s FMLA interference
claim because the undisputed facts show that her claim is
barred by the statute of limitations. A plaintiff must bring 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.” 29 U.S.C. § 2617(c)(1); Barrett v. Illinois Dep’t of Corrections,
803 F.3d 893, 898 (7th Cir. 2015) (affirming summary
judgment for employer based on FMLA statute of limitations).
If the employer acted willfully, however, the statute of limitations
is extended to three years. 29 U.S.C. § 2617(c)(2). This
unusual statute of limitations follows the model of the Fair
Labor Standards Act of 1938. See 29 U.S.C. § 255(a).
The FMLA statute of limitations clock begins to run from
the “last event constituting the alleged violation.” 29 U.S.C.
§ 2617(c)(1). The FMLA makes it unlawful for an employer to
“interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt
to exercise, any right provided” under the statute.
§ 2615(a)(1). An employee who takes FMLA leave is entitled,
upon return, to be restored to the position she previously held
No. 17‐2621 5
or to an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits,
pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.
§ 2614(a)(1)(A), (B).
Sampra’s lawsuit is untimely because she filed her complaint
on April 18, 2016, more than two years after the statute
of limitations clock began running. The clock started on
March 21, 2014 when Sampra’s supervisor assigned her to
work in the field at O’Hare—the assignment that Sampra
claims violated her FMLA rights. That assignment is analogous
to the denial of FMLA leave that started the clock in Barrett.
803 F.3d at 897 (identifying denial of leave request as “the
last event constituting the claim”); see also Crugher v. Prelesnik,
761 F.3d 610, 614 (6th Cir. 2014) (clock started running
on FMLA retaliation claim on date of employee’s termination);
Reed v. Lear Corp., 556 F.3d 674, 682 (8th Cir. 2009) (clock
started running on FMLA interference claim when employer
gave employee second letter denying FMLA leave rather than
later date of termination); Rutherford v. Peoria Public Schools
Dist. 150, 228 F. Supp. 3d 843, 852–53, 853 n.10 (C.D. Ill. 2017)
(clock started running on FMLA interference claim when employer
notified employee that employee had abandoned his
job and employer did not intend to reinstate him), citing and
distinguishing Barrett, 803 F.3d at 897; Deka v. Countryside
Ass’n for People With Disabilities, Inc., 140 F. Supp. 3d 698, 705
(N.D. Ill. 2015) (clock started running on FMLA interference
and retaliation claims on date of employee’s termination);
Ryan v. Pace Suburban Bus Div. of Regional Transp. Auth., 837 F.
Supp. 2d 834, 837 (N.D. Ill. 2011) (same). Sampra does not contest
the department’s contention that the statute of limitations
6 No. 17‐2621
began running on March 21, 2014 (as opposed to, say, the effective
date of the most onerous aspects of the new assignment
to the overnight schedule).1
The more generous three‐year statute of limitations in 29
U.S.C. § 2617(c)(2) does not apply because Sampra has not offered
evidence sufficient to support a finding that the department
willfully violated her FMLA rights. The FMLA does not
define the term “willful,” see § 2611, and the Supreme Court
has not yet defined the term under § 2617(c)(2). But in
McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128 (1988), the Supreme
Court explained the meaning of “willful” under the
analogous statute of limitations in the Fair Labor Standards
Act. McLaughlin held 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. Id. at 133,
135. Distinguishing “merely negligent” from “willful,”
McLaughlin observed that in common usage, “willful” is con‐
1 The department briefed the statute of limitations in its summary
judgment motion in the district court. In response, Sampra presented no
evidence or argument supporting her allegations of willfulness. Sampra
addressed the statute of limitations issue for the first time in her appellate
reply brief. Because the district court did not rely on the statute of limitations
defense, Sampra did not need to address it in her opening appellate
brief. But the department raised the issue properly in the district court,
and that was sufficient to require Sampra to offer any evidence she could
to avoid the defense. On appeal, the department is entitled to defend the
district court’s judgment on this alternative ground, see Luna v. United
States, 454 F.3d 631, 635 (7th Cir. 2006), and Sampra was entitled to address
the issue in her reply brief. We address the statute of limitations issue on
the evidentiary record the parties built in the district court.
No. 17‐2621 7
sidered synonymous with words such as “voluntary,” “deliberate,”
and “intentional.” Id. at 133. McLaughlin expressly rejected
the Fifth Circuit’s test that had required the employer
to know only that the FLSA “was in the picture” for the violation
to be considered “willful.” 486 U.S. at 132–33, 134 (“the
Jiffy June standard of willfulness—a standard that merely requires
that an employer knew that the FLSA ‘was in the picture’—
virtually obliterates any distinction between willful
and nonwillful violations”).
Other circuits have held that the McLaughlin willfulness
standard for FLSA claims applies as well to FMLA claims. See,
e.g., Bass v. Potter, 522 F.3d 1098, 1103–04 (10th Cir. 2008); Hoffman
v. Professional Med Team, 394 F.3d 414, 417–18 (6th Cir.
2005); Porter v. New York University School of Law, 392 F.3d 530,
531–32 (2d Cir. 2004); Hanger v. Lake County, 390 F.3d 579, 583
(8th Cir. 2004); Hillstrom v. Best Western TLC Hotel, 354 F.3d 27,
33 (1st Cir. 2003). We agree that the McLaughlin definition of
“willful” under the FLSA applies to the FMLA’s use of “willful”
in § 2617(c)(2). To benefit from the three‐year statute of
limitations in § 2617(c)(2), a plaintiff must show that her employer
either knew the FMLA prohibited its conduct or
showed reckless disregard for whether it did. McLaughlin, 486
U.S. at 133.
Applying the McLaughlin standard here, Sampra has not
offered evidence that would allow a reasonable trier of fact to
find that Sibert either knew his conduct would violate the
FMLA or showed reckless disregard. While Sibert concedes
that he knew the FMLA was in the picture, McLaughlin shows
that simple awareness that the FMLA “was in the picture” is
not sufficient to show willfulness. Id. The undisputed evidence
shows that Sibert believed he was complying with the
8 No. 17‐2621
FMLA by restoring Sampra to the same job title she had held
before her FMLA leave, and at the same pay. At worst, Sibert
might have acted negligently when he failed to consult the
FMLA regulations; there is no evidence that, as required by
the McLaughlin standard, he showed reckless disregard for
whether his conduct was prohibited by the FMLA. See, e.g.,
Deka, 140 F. Supp. 3d at 705 (finding plausible allegation of
willfulness where employee with serious illness was terminated
before going on FMLA leave and after employer repeatedly
scoffed at its FMLA duties). We also cannot ignore the
fact that a United States District Judge agreed with Sibert that
restoring Sampra to her prior position, job description, and
salary as a field engineer did not violate her FMLA rights. Because
Sampra failed to offer evidence sufficient to rely on the
three‐year limitation for willful violations, her FMLA interference
claim is barred by the two‐year statute of limitations.

Outcome: The judgment of the district court is

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