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Coercing employee to work after childbirth prejudiced FMLA rights

August 14th, 2014  |  Ron Miller

An employer that coerced an employee to work during her intended FMLA leave period and, subsequently, reassigned her based on her allegedly poor performance during that period, may well have been harmed the employee in violation of the FMLA, despite protestations that the employee received her full salary during this period and so had not “legal damages,” ruled the Eleventh Circuit in its recent decision Evans v Books-a-Million.

“Go live” date. In January 2006, a payroll manager for national book retailer Books-A-Million advised her employer that she was pregnant. At that time the employee was involved in the implementation of a new payroll system, which was scheduled to “go live” by August 2006. In June, she approached her supervisor to discuss necessary paperwork for her FMLA maternity leave, to become effective on her due date, September 1, 2006. As the time approached for her to deliver her baby, her department was behind schedule in implementing the new payroll system. The “go live” date had been pushed back until November 2006.

Subsequently, the employee was advised that management had decided that she “would not go on leave but would work while on maternity leave.” Despite the employee’s protestations that she did not intend to work after the birth of her child, her supervisor repeatedly told her that she was “really needed.” Moreover, the employee was advised that successful implementation of the new system would account for 50 percent of her annual bonus. Given her supervisor’s insistence, the employee felt she had “no choice” but to continue to work from home after the birth of her child. She was given a laptop computer that would enable her to work from home after her delivery.

In defending its actions against the employee’s claim that her FMLA rights were violated, the employer argued that the employee had no “legal damages” because she was paid for her work.
A district court brought that argument, but the Eleventh Circuit concluded that it erred by dismissing the employee’s FMLA claim.

Work from home. The employee gave birth on August 30, and upon arriving home from the hospital with her newborn on September 1, she immediately began answering work-related calls. For the next two months, the employee was required to work nearly full-time from home. She also had to attend meetings on the new system. However, she was paid her full salary while she worked from home. According to the employee, she returned to the office a week and a half earlier than she originally planned. Upon her return, her supervisor’s attitude toward her was cold and hostile. In the meanwhile, the employee was transferred to a newly created risk manager position, and the company advertised for a new payroll position that included all the employee’s former duties. The employee protested and declined to accept the risk manager position. Thereafter, she was terminated and denied a bonus.

The employee’s filed a complaint alleging, among other things, that Books-A-Million interfered with her right to take parental leave by forcing her to work from home immediately after she gave birth. The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the claim. This appeal followed.

FMLA interference. On appeal, the employee alleged that the district court erred in dismissing her FMLA claim. To prove FMLA interference, the employee had to demonstrate “that [she] was denied a benefit to which [she] was entitled under the FMLA,” and that she had been prejudiced by the violation in some way. Here, the district court concluded that the employee suffered no “legal damages” because she was paid for her work. However, the Eleventh Circuit found this conclusion was error. The FMLA provides explicitly for two (distinct) categories of remedies: (1) “damages,” including compensation, benefits, and other monetary losses sustained by reason of the violation; and (2) “such equitable relief as may be appropriate, including employment, reinstatement, and promotion.”

The appeals court observed that it was clear that, in order to prove that she was “prejudiced” by an FMLA violation, the employee need only demonstrate some harm remediable by either “damages” or “equitable relief.” In addition to the question of whether the employer interfered with the employee’s FMLA rights, there were other unresolved issues of material fact requiring a trial, such as whether she was “prejudiced” by any FMLA interference. A reasonable fact finder could conclude that her supervisor emphasized job performance while the employee was home with her newborn. Moreover, any prejudice or harm suffered by the employee may be remediable by reinstatement or “front pay” if reinstatement is not viable.