UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – The Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, along with The Employment Law Group—a litigation boutique based in Washington, D.C., filed an opening brief for Ms. Valerie Jeffords in the Ninth Circuit. Through the brief, Jeffords, who suffered a traumatic brain injury that led to her wrongful termination, sought to reverse an unfavorable finding of summary judgment. Speaking about the importance of her case, Jeffords said she was motivated “to make a better future for my daughter, other brain injury survivors, and humans who give so much of themselves to be shunted for optics and greed.”
Along with Penn State Law Professor Michael Foreman, the following six third-year clinical students worked on the brief: Zachary Shepherd, Ian Cassity, Mari Reott, Hannah Chapple, Alexandra Johnson, and Ava McCartin. To work on the case, “our group simulated a firm-like environment,” explained Reott, “which was ideal for ensuring everyone’s ideas were heard and thoroughly discussed.”
The brief advocated for reversal on three grounds: (1) failure to properly apply the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”); (2) interference with rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”); and (3) failure to properly apply the summary judgment standard. This was a particularly important case, explained Shepherd, because “together, the ADA and FMLA are some of the strongest guaranteed protections for workers as they deal with unplanned and disruptive medical developments in their lives and careers.”
For Jeffords, that type of unplanned medical development occurred twelve years into her employment with NAVEX Global, Inc. (“NAVEX”), a governance, risk, and compliance company. In December of 2018, Jeffords tragically sustained a traumatic brain injury during a car accident, and as a result, needed to take medical leave to fully recover from the incident. Up to this point, by all accounts, Jeffords was considered an exceptional employee and had been promoted to a senior vice president role in the company. Under the FMLA, she was entitled to up to twelve weeks of protected leave to treat her serious medical condition; and under the ADA, she was entitled to reasonable accommodations to return to work. Jeffords began her FMLA leave in December of 2019, and was supposed to remain on FMLA leave until March of 2020.
However, rather than honor Jeffords’ statutory rights under the FMLA and ADA, NAVEX terminated her employment in March of 2020 without discussing reasonable accommodations. Despite putting in twelve years of work for her employer, and serving the company as a senior vice president, NAVEX fired Jeffords at the onset of a global pandemic, while she was dealing with the ramifications of a traumatic brain injury. Accordingly, Jeffords sued NAVEX for violating the FMLA and ADA.
The United States District Court for the District of Oregon granted summary judgment in favor of NAVEX, and the Clinic got involved in the appeal to the Ninth Circuit. The initial idea was that The Employment Law Group would write the first portion of the brief, touching on the FMLA issue, while the Clinic would draft the second argument on the ADA.
“We were initially unsure of how our work would fit in with the argument and larger brief from The Employment Law Group,” Shepherd said. But once the clinic got to work, “we found that, given how many students we had in the Clinic, we could contribute heavily to the research and drafting of the brief—ultimately signing on as co-counsel.”
In the end, the six-person clinical team drafted a compelling section, supported by Ninth Circuit caselaw, that became the brief’s first argument. “Collaborating with my fellow classmates to help Ms. Jeffords was one of the most enriching experiences I have had in law school,” said Reott, reflecting on the experience.
Now that the opening brief is complete and filed with the Ninth Circuit, the Clinic will pick up work on additional cases, while awaiting a reply brief in Jeffords.
“Getting to see the final brief with our argument as one of the central components was really rewarding,” Chapple said. “I think we are all very proud of the work that we did and how well we collaborated to make it happen.”