Women who go on maternity leave typically have many legal issues that might arise under FMLA, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and disability insurance policies. A new case out of a New Jersey Court shows the interaction of some of these laws and in this instance things work our in favor of the employee which is not always the case.
After taking a year-long maternity leave following the birth of her child, a long-time employee of Bell Communications Research was terminated. The company maintained that because her position was eliminated during a reduction in force, it was not obligated to reinstate her. The employee, however, filed claims for breach of contract and interference with her rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA).
The employee stopped working on June 1, 2005, and gave birth to her son 8 days later. On June 20, 2005, the company sent her a form letter, notifying her that it had approved her 6-month leave of absence and reiterating the company policy on maternity leave.
Among other things, the letter stated, “This leave is granted with a guarantee of reinstatement up to 12 months to the same or comparable job, including the number of hours and days worked during the week, salary, and benefits prior to the Leave starting. Reinstatement is not guaranteed if your job is declared surplus or the number of hours you request to work at the time of reinstatement is different than when the Leave commenced.”
About 2 weeks before her 6-month leave was to expire, Shannon requested another 6-month leave—through July 21, 2006. The company granted the leave with the same provisions outlined above.
The employee notified the company that she planned to return to her part-time job on July 20, 2006, working the same 25 hours per week, but she agreed to work full time instead—at her supervisor’s request. Due to budgetary constraints, however, the company could maintain only one full-time ARIS release manager position. The supervisor gave that position to the release manager who had been filling in for the employee during her maternity leave, saying that that employee had better yearly performance evaluations than employee did. employee was terminated.
She filed a complaint in state court, alleging that the company had discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the FMLA and the NJFLA by terminating her because she took maternity leave and that it had breached a contract to reinstate her employment after her leave ended. The trial court granted summary judgment to the company, and employee appealed.
The appeals court agreed with the trial court that the company “did not violate the FMLA or the NJFLA, because those statutes required reinstatement of employment only when an employee takes a twelve-week-or-less leave of absence.” Employee took a one-year leave of absence.
The appeals court reversed the grant of summary judgment on the contract claim. Employee had argued “that the two letters approving her leaves of absence and guaranteeing her job upon completion of her leave amounted to a contract, and… [the company] breached that contract by terminating her employment,” the court explained. The Court agreed that employer could be found to have breached the contract with her.
The case is called Lapidoth v. Telcordia Technologies, Inc., Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division, No. A-1545-09T1 (6/9/11)
If you are pregnant and need help navigating the FMLA, Pregnancy Discrimination Act, or any leave or disability documents, feel free to call Scott Behren and the Behren Law Firm for a consultation.