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Sampra v. United States Department of Transportation

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 24, 2018

Sara Sampra, Plaintiff-Appellant,
United States Department of Transportation, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued February 6, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 16-CV-4391 - Ronald A. Guzmán, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Kanne and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Hamilton, Circuit Judge.

         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 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.

         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 engineers."

         Initially, 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.

         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 salary.

         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 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.

         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 or to an equivalent position with ...

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