A district court’s refusal to grant an employer’s motion for summary judgment in a fired teacher’s interference and retaliation claim is a clarion call and reminder to employers that the Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees employees that their original job — or its equivalent — will be waiting for them when their FMLA leave has ended.
This undeniable FMLA entitlement is the reason that the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut ruled as it did in Wanamaker v. Westport Board of Education, No. 3:11-cv-1791 (VLB), Sept. 25, 2012.
Facts of Case
In April 2009 while on FMLA maternity leave, Sally Wanamaker, a tenured Greens Farms School teacher, suffered a spinal cord injury resulting from the birth of her daughter. In addition, her daughter was born with a serious, congenital heart defect which required future surgery to repair.
In July 2009, Wanamaker spoke with the Westport Public Schools human resources department about the possibility of a brief medical leave at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year. HR responded that Wanamaker’s position would be held for her “if she needed to take a health-related medical leave.”
After receiving doctor’s notification that Wanamaker might not be able to return to work at the start of the new school year, the school principal told Wanamaker that the same substitute teacher would continue to cover her responsibilities during her 30 to 60 days of leave, the amount of time off her doctor recommended.
Wanamaker alleged that the principal subsequently informed her that he had “decided to replace her permanently” based on the Westport Public Schools superintendent’s directive. Wanamaker asserted that she was “selected out of her position due to her disability, perceived need to take medical leave in the future, and exercise of FMLA rights.”
The principal, Wanamaker said, then informed her that when she was ready to return, she could “come back as a substitute classroom teacher,” a job that was not equivalent to the computer teacher’s position that she had held since 2001, and was in reality a demotion.
The district court determined that Wanamaker made a plausible claim for FMLA interference because her employer refused to reinstate her to her original position or its equivalent.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York issued a ruling that defined “equivalent position”:
“An equivalent position is one that is ‘virtually identical’ to the employee’s former position ‘in terms of pay, benefits, and working conditions’ and it ‘must involve the same or substantially similar duties and responsibilities, which must entail substantially equivalent skill, effort, responsibility, and authority.” See Pizzo v. HSBC USA, Inc., No. 04-CV-114A, (D. W.D. N.Y. 2007).
The Connecticut court also found Wanamaker’s retaliation claim to be plausible based on the alleged comments of an ex-Westport Education Association union president and letters written by the Westport Public Schools superintendent (and addressed to the teacher’s union) that displayed hostility and animus toward teacher absences.
Wanamaker’s allegations in this regard demonstrate the required nexus, the judges said, because “supervisors made the remarks, some of the remarks were made in relation to the employment decisions at issue, and a reasonable juror could view the remarks as discriminatory.”
Sometimes employment law may seem clear as mud, but this critical FMLA component — reinstatement after leave — spells things out in a straightforward and simple manner.
The right to take unpaid leave would not be very meaningful if employees were not guaranteed that their jobs would be waiting for them when the leave ended.
Even if the employer has replaced the employee during his or her absence or restructured the employee’s job to accommodate the absence, at the end of FMLA leave the employee is entitled to return to work to the original job or one with the same responsibilities, pay and benefits (29 C.F.R. §825.214).
For more information on the employer’s obligations after FMLA leave ends, please refer to ¶400 in the Thompson Family and Medical Leave Handbook on HR Compliance Expert.