Miami-Dade Fire Prevails in FMLA Suit

A lawsuit filed by a former human resource manager at Miami-Dade Fire Rescue claiming her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act had been violated, has been decided in favor of the fire department. The rather complicated fact pattern shows how important it is that fire service leaders understand and comply with the FMLA.

Madeline Clodfelter was the Human Resource Division Manager at MDFR. On March 25, 2018, she sent emails to her staff and the fire chief stating that she was retiring effective April 6, 2018.

The following day she decided to enter a Deferred Retirement Option Program or “DROP” program, with the Florida Retirement Pension System. This decision required her retirement date to be postponed until February 28, 2023. The next day, Clodfelter sent the fire chief a second email stating that rather than abruptly retiring, she would be entering the DROP program. Her email indicated that she would like to go on leave during which she would be available to assist her interim replacement, and that while on leave she would be searching for another county position.

The fire chief sent Clodfelter a response acknowledging her new request, informing her of her options for taking leave, including FMLA leave. The email also stated: “Based on your initial resignation memorandum dated March 25, 2018, and your intentions as stated in this recent letter, I will assume you no longer wish to serve as the department’s Human Resource Division Manager.”

Thereafter Clodfelter requested and was approved for FMLA leave due to migraines. However, she never responded to the chief’s statement relative to his assumption about her not wanting to remain as HR director.

In June, 2018, the chief gave Clodfelter a letter informing her she was being replaced as HR director as well confirming the fact that she:

  • had classified service rights to exercise to another county position,
  • she would receive written notification of her new assignment from Human Resources, and
  • in the interim she would be granted administrative leave until July 6, 2018.

Upon her return from FMLA leave, Clodfelter was assigned to a new position as a Special Project Administrator with the Department of Transportation and Public Works. Because the new position paid less and entailed less responsibility, Clodfelter claimed her FMLA rights had been violated. Specifically she claimed the county interfered with her use of FMLA leave, and then retaliated against her for exercising her FMLA rights.

Clodfelter filed suit in US District Court for the Southern District of Florida in June, 2020. Miami Dade filed a motion for summary judgment contending there are no disputed facts and that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. This week Judge Darrin P. Gayles agreed with Miami-Dade, holding as follows:

  • To establish an interference claim, “an employee must demonstrate that he was denied a benefit to which he was entitled under the FMLA.”
  • While Plaintiff was not reinstated to her position as Division Manager, the evidence is clear that [the chief]’s actions were unrelated to Plaintiff’s FMLA leave.
  • Before taking her FMLA leave, Plaintiff repeatedly notified [the chief] that she no longer wished to remain with MDFR.
  • First, Plaintiff abruptly resigned. Then, when she decided to enter DROP instead, Plaintiff expressly stated that she would take leave while she looked for another position with Miami-Dade County.
  • When [the chief] told Plaintiff on March 29, 2018, that he assumed Plaintiff no longer wished to serve as the department’s Division Manager, Plaintiff never challenged his assumption.
  • Indeed, Plaintiff never told Defendant that she intended to return to her prior position as Division Manager.
  • Based on this record, it is clear that [the chief] removed Plaintiff from her prior position because that is exactly what she requested.
  • After unequivocally telling [the chief] that she intended to work in a different position after returning from FMLA leave, Plaintiff cannot now argue FMLA interference.
  • Accordingly, Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s FMLA interference claim.
  • Plaintiff contends that Defendant retaliated against her for taking FMLA leave by demoting her, reducing her salary, and refusing to restore her to her prior or an equivalent position when she returned from FMLA leave.
  • Plaintiff told [the fire chief] that she was retiring as Division Manager and that she wanted another position with the County after returning from FMLA leave.
  • While [the chief] finalized his decision to remove Plaintiff as Division Manager just after her FMLA leave ended, this temporal proximity, without more, is insufficient to establish causation.
  • Even if Plaintiff had adduced enough evidence to establish a prima facie case, Defendant has proffered a legitimate reason for removing Plaintiff from her position: Plaintiff’s expressed desire to seek a position elsewhere.
  • Plaintiff’s stated intent to leave her current position and look for another position with Miami-Dade County undermines the significance of any temporal proximity between her removal and her FMLA leave.
  • Accordingly, Plaintiff cannot meet her burden, and Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff’s retaliation claim.

The FMLA is an important law for fire service leaders to understand. In this case, Miami Dade Fire Rescue prevailed not only because its leadership made sound leave-related decisions amidst a seemingly fluid employee-scenario, but because it was able to document the various communications and the reasons for its decisions. It would not be a stretch for a fire department to have lost this case had its decision-making or documentation been lacking in any way.

We will be hosting our first FLMA for fire department’s program on January 12, 2022. The program will be delivered by Brad Pinsky, one of our firefighter attorneys. Please join us for this vitally important FMLA program.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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