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William Shaffer v. American Medicalassociation

October 18, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 09 CV 01656-Amy J. St. Eve, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Williams, Circuit Judge.


Before KANNE, WILLIAMS, and TINDER, Circuit Judges.

The American Medical Association was not immune to the downturn in the economy. Budget cuts mandated that some employees lose their jobs, including at least one in the department where William Shaffer worked. Fortunately for him, or so it seemed, his supervisor was leaning toward letting another person go. But soon after Shaffer requested leave in light of upcoming surgery, that changed. His supervisor decided that Shaffer would now be the employee let go in the department, and Shaffer contends that decision was prompted by his request for leave and was therefore improper under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The AMA maintains that the leave request had nothing to do with its decision, and a jury might well agree. But we agree with Shaffer that a reasonable jury could also find in his favor, and we reverse the grant of summary judgment against him.


At this stage in the proceedings, we recount the narrative that follows in the light most favorable to Shaffer since he was not the party who moved for summary judgment. The AMA first hired Shaffer in 1999. He resigned a year later, but the AMA rehired him in 2004 as a contract employee, and Michael Lynch hired him as a full-time employee in 2005. By 2008, Shaffer had become AMA's Director of Leadership Communications. His duties in that role included writing speeches and editorials, supervising a staff of three speech writers, and signing off on final speeches.

In August 2008 the economic downturn began to concretely affect the AMA. The organization asked all its departments to reduce their 2009 budgets by at least 3% below the previous year's budgets. At first, Lynch reduced his budget by eliminating an annual conference. The next month, in response to direction from the AMA board, Marietta Parenti, AMA's Chief Marketing Officer, directed department heads to consider all options to further reduce budgets, including the elimination of positions. Parenti and Lynch ultimately decided they needed to downsize by at least one position in Lynch's department.

On October 28, 2008, Parenti emailed Lynch to ask for his recommendation regarding the elimination of a position. Lynch responded that afternoon, beginning his email by stating, "I know you want closure on this issue tomorrow . . . ." It was already Lynch's plan to eliminate the position of Peter Friedman, the Communications Campaign Manager, because his responsibilities had changed drastically and the AMA had stopped work on one of his core campaigns, and Lynch had previously told Parenti that he had planned to cut Friedman's position. Parenti's October 28 request sought Lynch's recommendation about whether to terminate Shaffer as well, and Lynch wrote in his email that he did not think cutting additional positions beyond Friedman's was in the AMA's best interest and detailed why he thought downsizing the department even more would be a bad idea.

The AMA held its Interim Meeting in early November of 2008. On Thursday, November 20, 2008, Shaffer notified Lynch that he would be having knee replacement surgery on January 12, 2009, that he would be taking four to six weeks of leave as a result, and that he was setting up a claim for short-term disability benefits. The Thanksgiving holiday fell the following week. On the Sunday evening of the holiday weekend, November 30, Lynch sent Parenti a long email. He explained that he was now of the mind that the AMA should eliminate Shaffer's position and retain Friedman. Lynch also wrote, "The team is already preparing for Bill's short-term leave in January, so his departure should not have any immediate negative impact." He also gave Parenti his "[a]pologies for this 11th hour change of heart."

Lynch and AMA Human Resources Representative Harvey Daniels notified Shaffer on Thursday, December 4, 2008 that the AMA was letting him go. Shaffer's last day on the AMA payroll was January 4, 2009.

On February 2, 2009, after receiving a letter from counsel representing Shaffer, AMA's in-house counsel, Michael Katsuyama, met with Daniels and informed him of possible litigation. On February 3, Daniels typed up handwritten notes he had taken concerning earlier discussions with Lynch about eliminating Shaffer's position. Daniels dated the typed notes November 25, 2008 and shredded his original notes. The typed document states that the position was eliminated because Lynch could accommodate having the speech writing staff report directly to him, a layer of management would be eliminated, and there had been decreased demand on the speech writing staff. Lynch's calendar did not reflect a meeting with Daniels for November 25, though, and Lynch testified in his deposition that he recalled that he was still pondering which position to eliminate over Thanksgiving weekend and had not made a decision as of November 25.

Also during the first few days of February, Daniels told Lynch to prepare a memorandum for Lynch's upcoming meeting with in-house counsel Katsuyama and to describe in it his rationale for selecting Shaffer as the employee to let go. Lynch typed the memorandum on February 3 or 4, 2009, but he dated it November 21, 2008 and addressed it to Daniels. Lynch gave the memorandum to Katsuyama when they met.

Shaffer filed suit in federal court, and the district court granted summary judgment in the AMA's favor. In May 2009, because of the economic environment, the AMA ended its employment of ...

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