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Appellate Court Hands Northwestern University A Win In ADA & FMLA Suit

The case was brought by a lab-tech employed by the university’s medical school, alleging several claims, including harassment, disability discrimination, and retaliation for taking FMLA leave for anxiety. The plaintiff also alleged she was called a “typical millennial,” “Princess Diana,” and teased about needing psychiatric help, or being “off her meds.” The FMLA claim named both the school and plaintiff’s supervising doctor, individually, as defendants. The plaintiff alleged her supervisor rescinded his letter of reference for her application to medical schools, after she took FMLA leave. The Seventh Circuit’s decision provides the following lessons for employers:

Lesson # 1: Can a supervisor be sued personally in an FMLA lawsuit, separate from their employer?

Yes. Unlike most other workplace laws, the FMLA statute allows individuals (managers, HR professionals and other decision-makers) to be named as defendants in an FMLA case.

Lesson # 2: Can an employer (or supervisor) ever take disciplinary action against an employee who takes FMLA leave?

The answer can be “yes,” if there is adequate evidence that the discipline is unrelated to FMLA leave, which is protected. For example, employers sometimes discover an employee’s misconduct or malfeasance when she or he is away on medical leave. In the Northwestern case, the supervising doctor learned the plaintiff failed to document data on a research project she worked on before taking FMLA leave, claiming this caused him to question her ethical judgment.

Lesson # 3: Is there any defense to the harassment this plaintiff alleged?

Yes again. While harassment based on disability or perceived disability could support a harassment claim if severe enough, this court held the plaintiff’s case was doomed because she never reported the harassment under the university’s published policy.

The case is Diane Trahanas v. Northwestern University, Case No. – 15-cv-11192 (7th Cir., April 7, 2023).

Attorney James Sherman is the author of this article. If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss he can be reached at: (952) 746-1700 or by email

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