February 6, 2018
from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 16-CV-4391 -
Ronald A. Guzmán, Judge.
Wood, Chief Judge, and Kanne and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.
Hamilton, Circuit Judge.
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 her return from leave.
Sampra has appealed. We affirm, though on the different
ground that Sampra's lawsuit is time- barred. 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.
Factual and Procedural Background
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 engineers."
Sampra was assigned to a field position at Mid- way 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.
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.
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 salary.
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 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
day-time 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.
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).
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 or to an
equivalent position with ...