District Court Denies Motion to Dismiss Race Discrimination and FMLA Claims Against School District

By Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On May 15, 2017, the District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied the Township High School District 214’s motion to dismiss in Valdivia v. Township High School District 214, where Noemi Valdivia, a Hispanic high school secretary, claimed that co-workers’ derogatory comments about Hispanic students and their families forced her to resign.  She brings a hostile work environment claim based on race under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) and an interference claim for defendant’s failure to inform her that she was eligible for 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Ms. Valdivia began working at District 214’s Elk Grove High School in 2010. Although she claims that her coworkers had always made derogatory remarks about Hispanic students and their families, in September 2014, these remarks became more frequent. For example, one of her peers allegedly said that Hispanic people “came to America” and “want everything for free even though they have new cell phones and their nails done.” Another told Ms. Valdivia not to speak Spanish at work because they were in “America.” Ms. Valdivia claims that she complained to both the school principal and the assistant principal, but both told her there was nothing they could do since “the secretaries’ union was too strong.”

In an effort to remove herself from the “racially hostile work environment at Elk Grove High School,” Ms. Valdivia applied for and was offered a secretary position at Wheeling High School—another school in District 214—where she began working in June 2016.  But the transfer did not stop the disparaging comments. In July 2016, an associate principal at Wheeling told Ms. Valdivia that “those people” (referring to a Mexican family) never pay their bills. Afterwards, Ms. Valdivia became “extremely distraught and began crying regularly and uncontrollably at work,” and, at one point, told her supervisor, Principal Angela Sisi, that she was overwhelmed, afraid, and unsure if she could continue working. In August 2016, Ms. Valdivia reached out to a school counselor and a Latino outreach family coordinator and told them, while crying uncontrollably, that she did not know whether she could continue working for the district.

In response to her concerns regarding her ability to work while in obvious distress, Principal Sisi, a school counselor, and an outreach coordinator demanded that Ms. Valdivia either continue or resign her employment. On August 3, 2016, Ms. Valdivia approached Principal Sisi in tears and explained that she was confused and overwhelmed, had not slept or eaten in weeks, and was losing weight. Principal Sisi only reiterated that Ms. Valdivia needed to decide whether to resign. Ms. Valdivia agreed to resign “due to medical reasons” and feeling overwhelmed but, a few days later, asked to rescind her resignation.  She was told, however, that her replacement had already been chosen. About two weeks later, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and insomnia.

Declining to dismiss Ms. Valdivia’s claims, the court rejected the school district’s argument that the allegations in the complaint were not sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to sustain a Title VII hostile work environment claim. The court acknowledged that Ms. Valdivia alleged that: District 214’s employees made “repeated, and arguably, derogatory comments” about Hispanic families; the comments interfered with her work performance to the extent that she had to transfer to another school; and, after she transferred, she again became distraught when she heard a similarly hostile comment from a supervisor. The court held that these allegations were sufficient to state a hostile work environment claim under Title VII.

Regarding the FMLA interference claim, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that Ms. Valdivia failed to provide sufficient notice that she had a serious health condition. The court found that her allegations that she became “extremely distraught and began crying regularly and uncontrollably at work” made it plausible that the defendant was on notice that Ms. Valdivia was suffering from a serious health condition.

Finally, the court reminded the parties of the limited scope of a motion to dismiss:

On a motion to dismiss, we do not attempt to grade the relative plausibility of each party’s take on the complaint’s allegations.  The plausibility of defendant’s explanation is not what controls on a motion to dismiss; rather, the question is whether the plaintiff has alleged factual content sufficient to state a plausible claim.

In short, it is not the court’s responsibility at the pleading stage to decide what has actually happened—only whether a plaintiff’s allegations plausibly state a claim. In other words, a defendant’s response to the plaintiff’s allegations is irrelevant, since those allegations must be assumed to be true.

If your employer has discriminated against you based on your race or interfered with your legal rights to take medical leave, contact The Harman Firm, LLP.