Magistrate Judge Sides With Ex-Coach Claiming University Interfered With Her Right to Take FMLA Leave

Nov 22, 2019

A magistrate judge from the Western District of Pennsylvania has denied Seton Hill University’s motion to dismiss in a case in which it was sued by a former coach for allegedly subjecting her to discrimination, harassment, and a hostile work environment based on her gender, race, and her association with a disabled son as well as interfering with her right to Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave to care for her son, and retaliating against her by firing her when she complained about discrimination and a hostile work environment.
Beginning in March 2008 and until Feb. 27, 2017, Seton Hill employed Amy Harness, an African American woman, as its field hockey coach. During her tenure as head coach, Harness gave birth to a son who suffers from epilepsy, with 20 to 30 seizures per day, and who requires constant monitoring and medication. In November 2016, doctors recommended that he undergo brain surgery to treat his condition.
The plaintiff alleges that Seton Hill was aware of her son’s medical condition, and that Chris Snyder, Seton Hill’s Athletic Director (AD), indicated that his condition affected Harness’s job performance. At one point, the AD questioned her professional motivation, and asked, “If it weren’t for your son, would you still be coaching?” Harness assured him that her dedication for her job went beyond a need for healthcare. Further she alleges that this conversation occurred after she had been complaining for months regarding disparate treatment she experienced as one of three female head coaches and the only female African American coach at Seton Hill as well as the hostile work environment.
As examples of disparate treatment, Harness alleges that beginning in 2013, Seton Hill administrators interfered with coaching decisions regarding playing time, team discipline issues, and parent conduct. In 2013, two field hockey players sued Harness, Seton Hill and some administrators, alleging that Harness’s coaching style was abusive and her training methods were too hard. Seton Hill denied the allegations, and an internal investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing. Seton Hill later settled the case without admitting wrongdoing. However, after the case was resolved, Seton Hill suspended Harness for one week without pay, sent her to conflict resolution training, and placed her on a Performance Improvement Plan. After her suspension, Seton Hill further restricted Harness’s authority over her team, and required administrative approval of team discipline decisions. Harness alleges that she complained to the AD and Compliance Director that white and male coaches who engaged in similar coaching methods were not subjected to discipline, and that they received significantly more support from university administrators.
After the birth of her son in November 2016, administrators allegedly made comments to Harness about how his health affected her job performance. The AD suggested that Seton Hill might be able to find Harness a different, less stressful position, and encouraged her to apply for a position assisting the men’s football team. Harness declined the opening, but expressed interest in a new position. In early 2017, Harness learned that her son needed surgery and discussed with the AD her need for a leave of absence of four weeks to care of her son. Harness opted to schedule the surgery in the summer when coaching obligations were less demanding. The AD told her he would pass on the information to Seton Hill’s president, and would continue to look for a “less stressful” position for Harness. Despite her request for a leave of absence to care for her ailing son, Seton Hill failed to inform Harness of her right to request leave under the FMLA, according to the complaint. Six weeks later, Harness was fired.
Seton Hill’s termination of Harness occurred after video surfaced of team players and high school recruits appearing intoxicated. When the incident was investigated, team players told Seton Hill officials that Harness instructed them to lie and report that the underage students were “friends, not recruits.” Harness states she told the players to tell the truth, and that despite the availability of a witness who corroborated Harness’s version of events, the AD terminated Harness’s employment. The plaintiff was replaced by a white female.
Harness claims that her termination and treatment under these circumstances constitutes, in relevant part, a violation of her rights under the ADA and Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA) based upon her association as the parent of a disabled child, and wrongful retaliation for challenging Seton Hill’s treatment of her while she cared for him. Harness further claims that Seton Hill violated her rights under the FMLA, by failing to advise her of her right to FMLA leave to care for her son, and for retaliating against her by terminating her when she attempted to exercise her right to request and take leave.
The defendant moved to dismiss, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)6, arguing that the factual allegations set forth in the complaint failed to establish or infer a prima facie claim of disability retaliation under the ADA or the PHRA, and further failed to support her claims for FMLA interference or retaliation.
The court first addressed the retaliation claims related to the ADA and PHRA. Harness alleged an associational disability discrimination claim, which also provides the basis for her ADA retaliation claim; set forth at Count VII, and a PHRA disability retaliation claim at Count VIII. Seton Hill did not seek dismissal of Count VI, and the allegations of the Amended Complaint are sufficient to state plausible ADA and PHRA discrimination claims.
In its analysis of the retaliation claims related to the ADA and PHRA, the court noted that for the plaintiff to survive a motion to dismiss, she must “allege facts that would plausibly infer (1) that she engaged in protected activity, (2) that she suffered an adverse action either after or contemporaneous with the protected activity, and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and her employer’s adverse action. Feliciano v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., 281 F. Supp. 3d 585, 593 (E.D. Pa. 2017); and see, Williams v. Phila. Hous. Auth. Police Dep’t, 380 F.3d 751, 759 (3d Cir. 2004) (superseded by statue on other grounds recognized in Robinson v. First State Community Action Agency, 920 F.3d 182 (3d Cir. 2019); Krouse v. Am. Sterilizer Co., 126 F.3d 494, 500 (3d Cir. 1997).
“Harness contends that she engaged in protected activity when she requested a transfer to a new position after her work ethic, professionalism, and commitment to her job were challenged because of her son’s medical condition,” wrote the court, which “is sufficient to support a retaliation claim. See Ruggiero v. Mount Nittany Medical Center, No. 17-2227, 736 F. App’x 35, 41 (3d Cir. 2018) (district court erred in prematurely dismissing ADA retaliation claim where plaintiff sufficiently alleged that she engaged in protected activity when she requested an accommodation for her illness and thereafter suffered an adverse action (termination)).”
Fast forwarding to the third requirement, or the “required causal connection between any protected activity and her termination,” the defendant claimed that the length of time between the protected activity and the adverse action was too great to establish causation. The court, taking in the totality of the protected activity, disagreed.
“In the context of all of the allegations of the First Amended Complaint, two months is certainly sufficient to raise a plausible inference that her termination was retaliatory, and is enough to permit Harness to proceed to discovery to determine if there is proof of a causal link between her request to transfer and complaints regarding Seton Hill’s treatment of her, her son’s disability, and her eventual termination,” it wrote.
Turning to the claim brought under the FMLA, the court wrote that an employee “may bring claims against an employer for the (1) interference with the right to 12 weeks of medical leave, and may also bring a separate claim for (2) retaliation premised upon the employer’s discharge or other discrimination suffered by an employee who has invoked her right to FMLA leave.
“As relevant here, under the applicable FMLA regulations, interference may be found where an employer fails to provide notice of FMLA rights,” wrote the court, adding that “at the pleading stage of the proceedings, Harness has sufficiently stated an FMLA interference claim.” The court also deferred to the plaintiff on the claim for retaliation under the FMLA, finding that she had alleged “all necessary elements for an FMLA retaliation claim.”
Harness v. Seton Hill Univ.; W.D. Pa.; 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 168144, Civil Action No. 19-200; 9/30/19
Attorney of Record: (for defendant) Paul S. Mazeski, LEAD ATTORNEY, Curtis M. Schaffner, Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC, Pittsburgh, Pa.


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