The Town of Sneads, Florida is a small municipality of fewer than 2,000 people. Burt McAlpin served as the Chief of Police for the Sneads Police Department from March 2006 until October 2018. McAlpin had a pleasant working relationship with the Town Council for much of those 12 years. However, this relationship rapidly devolved with the election of new council members in the 2017 and 2018 municipal elections.
McAlpin’s deteriorating relationship with the Town Council accelerated when the Town hired Lynda Bell as Town Manager in August of 2018. Within two weeks of Bell’s hiring, McAlpin took sick leave due to what he described as physical symptoms of anxiety and stress. On September 5, he visited a medical clinic with chest pain, cardiac issues, and generalized stress. According to McAlpin, he was medically excused from work for two weeks, although he never disclosed “the actual underlying cause of the need for leave, as that would violate HIPAA.”
The clinic provided McAlpin with a “Return to Work” note, which stated that he was cleared to return to work on September 21. The note did not indicate why he went to the clinic or why he was excused from work, and it was signed by the clinic receptionist. After Bell emailed McAlpin on September 10, advising the note was insufficient because it did not contain a “statement of medical necessity” and was not signed by a doctor, McAlpin submitted a second note that was functionally identical to the first but signed by a nurse practitioner rather than a receptionist.
McAlpin submitted a third note from the same clinic extending his excused time out of work to October 3, but that note still did not provide a medical reason. On October 5, a former sergeant hand delivered an FMLA form signed by McAlpin to Town Hall that indicated what his medical conditions were and the probable duration of those conditions.
On October 9, the five-member Town Council terminated McAlpin’s employment by a 4-to-1 vote. The Council did so under the charge that McAlpin was disrespectful at best and insubordinate at worst. McAlpin responded by suing the City, claiming that he was the victim of retaliation for filing an FMLA claim.
The federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld McAlpin’s termination. The Court found that “absent direct evidence of retaliatory intent, to establish a prima facie case of a FMLA retaliation claim, the employee must prove: (1) he engaged in a statutorily protected activity; (2) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there is some causal relation between the two events.
“The City concedes that McAlpin’s medical leave for alleged physical ailments from stress and anxiety qualifies as protected activity under the FMLA. And there is no dispute that McAlpin’s termination satisfies the second prong of an FMLA prima facie case.
“Therefore, we limit our analysis to the third prong – the causal connection between the two. We will assume McAlpin established a prima facie case for FMLA retaliation for purposes of summary judgment. As a result, the burden now shifts to the Town to proffer a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the adverse employment action.
“The record evidence establishes that the Town did so. According to the Council’s and Bell’s well-documented grievances against McAlpin, the Council viewed McAlpin as insubordinate and obstinate. For example, McAlpin refused to work with the Council in addressing the Town’s budget crisis. Because the Town has met its burden to proffer a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for McAlpin’s termination, the burden shifts back to McAlpin to establish that the reasons proffered by the Town were false and merely a pretext for his termination.
“McAlpin contends that the fact that the Town Council did not follow its progressive discipline policy in its policy manual and instead moved directly to terminate him shows pretext. We disagree. The Town’s discipline policy states that the most flagrant and serious acts of gross misconduct can provide grounds for immediate termination and provides a nonexclusive list of such acts. The discipline policy further explicitly lists insubordination as a ground for immediate termination. Thus, we conclude that McAlpin’s termination was not evidence of pretext, as it did not violate the Town’s standard procedure to fire an employee, such as McAlpin, on the basis of insubordination.
“McAlpin did not meet his burden in establishing that the Town of Sneads’s proffered legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for his termination was pretextual.”
McAlpin v. Town of Sneads, 61 F.4th 916 (11th Cir. 2023).
This article appears in the June 2023 issue of our monthly newsletter, Public Safety Labor News.
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