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ELGIN — A divided Illinois appeals court has ruled against a Wood Dale public school teacher’s bid to split her maternity leave so she could take paid days off both before and after summer break.
Illinois Second District Appellate Justice Joseph E. Birkett wrote the majority opinion, supported by Justice Robert D. McLaren. The court upheld judgment in favor of Wood Dale School District 7, which granted teacher Margaret Dynak 1.5 days of paid leave at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, plus 12 weeks of unpaid Family Medical Leave Act leave at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, but balked at paying Dynak for the fall leave, which began when her infant was 10 weeks old.
Provided a teacher has accumulated enough leave, the school code grants teachers in the state at least 30 days of paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and at least three days of paid leave for an illness. Dynak argued that because the code separates sick leave from birth leave, and because birth leave is also available to fathers and in the event of an adoption, the legislature recognized that birth leave is about more than physical recovery; it is about family bonding and adjustment. As such, she argued, she was entitled to paid leave for 30 consecutive work days. As her child was born by scheduled caesarean section one day before the end of the school year, she expected to take the remaining 28 paid days off when school resumed 10 weeks later.
The school board countered that it made no sense to stretch a single leave period across two school years. A DuPage County judge sided with the school district, prompting appeal.
Illinois Second District Appellate Justice Joseph Birkett
The Illinois Second District majority agreed that construing the statute in that way opens the door to “absurd” results.
“Suppose that an employee becomes ill on the final two days of a school year, is then ill for seven calendar days, makes a complete recovery, and obtains a medical certificate,” Birkett wrote. “Under plaintiff’s construction … that employee could also claim one more day of sick leave on the first day of the new school year. However, such a claim would divorce sick leave from the event requiring the leave. [This] would lead to an absurd result.”
Birkett suggested that if the break were shorter than the requested leave – for example, if it was a five-day spring break or a 10-day winter break instead of a 50-day summer break – the section might be interpreted differently. He stopped short of saying that this is the case, however, saying only that situation was not before the court.
The court acknowledged Dynak’s argument that because the code addresses sick leave and birth leave separately, it is logical to assume the legislature intended to treat them differently. However, Birkett wrote, once a term has been defined in the context of a statute, the same definition applies all the way through the statute, so Dynak cannot claim benefits under one leave that would not also apply to the other leave listed in the same section.
Dynak argued that because the school board had granted her the unpaid FMLA time at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year, it implicitly recognized that maternity leave should cover consecutive work days, regardless of the timing of the birth. The court disagreed on the grounds that the FMLA specifically states employees have 12 months after the birth or adoption of a child to take their time off, while the school code contains no timing provisions.
“[The] plaintiff’s construction would tend to confer upon teachers and teachers alone a sort of sub rosa paid parental leave based on the fortuity of the timing of birth,” Birkett wrote. “If the legislature had intended to confer paid parental leave, it would not have hijacked a sick-leave provision to do so.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Donald C. Hudson said the majority is reading unwritten limits into the plain language of the statute.
“Although [the School Code] states merely that a teacher may use 30 of his or her accumulated sick days ‘for birth,’ the majority holds that, in fact, he or she may do so except when the summer break interrupts those days,” Hudson wrote. “In my view the majority is not construing the statute but rewriting it and, in doing so, it is reaching, rather than avoiding, an absurd result.”
Hudson wrote that the issue is straightforward: Dynak gave birth and proposed to use 30 of her accumulated sick days on her next 30 work days. According to Hudson, this proposal falls squarely within the confines of the school code.
“The only issue is that, because plaintiff happened to give birth at nearly the end of a school year, her next 30 work days were interrupted by the summer break. But the statute provides no exception for that circumstance,” Hudson wrote. “The creation of that exception is the legislature’s province, not our own.”
Hudson noted that under the majority interpretation, a teacher who gives birth during the school year can use all 30 paid days provided in the code; a teacher who gives birth near the end of the school year can use some of the days; and a teacher who gives birth in the summer can use none of the days – which Hudson claims is “an absurd result.”
Because Dynak was granted her requested FMLA time off, the majority concluded the issue was not about the time off, but about whether it should be paid. The justices noted Dynak eventually will be paid for those unused sick days when she retires or leaves the district.