HR Management & Compliance

Forcing Pregnant Employee to Work then Firing her for Underperforming Raises FMLA Interference Claim, 11th Circuit Rules

An employee who was “forced” to work both during her pregnancy and immediately after her child’s birth, rather than take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, may have a viable FMLA interference claim when the employer later penalizes her, to the point of employment termination, for alleged poor performance, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in overturning a lower court ruling.

The court opinion recounted the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Tondalaya Evans was as payroll and insurance manager at Books-A-Million. In addition to her salary, she could get an annual cash bonus.

Upon learning she was pregnant in January 2006, she approached her supervisor about taking leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, but due to the implementation of a new payroll system was told to work from home. Her work schedule continued immediately after she arrived home from the hospital with her newborn, to include work-related calls, additional work assignments, working nearly full-time — including more than eight hours a day on occasion, and requirements to attend in-office meetings. She was paid her full salary during this period.

The payroll system launch, albeit delayed, was apparently a “success”; however, Evan’s supervisor expressed frustration with the implementation. A decision was made to reassign Evans to a newly created, nonpayroll position for which she had no experience. At the same time, a job listing went out for a new payroll manager. The choice given Evans was to accept the new position or resign. Evans did not accept the position, and was terminated on March 27, 2007. She was then told she was ineligible for a year-end bonus because she was fired two days before an eligibility trigger date.

Evans sued Books-A-Million for FMLA interference and other employment-law and benefits claims. A federal district court adopted a magistrate judge’s recommendation rejecting Evans’ claim because she was paid her full salary while she worked from home, and, therefore, “has not established that she suffered any legal damages.” Evans appealed.

It is unlawful for “for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise,” FMLA rights.  29 U.S.C. §2615(a)(1). To prove FMLA interference, a plaintiff must demonstrate that she/he was denied a benefit to which she/he was entitled under the FMLA and was prejudiced by the violation.

The appeals court noted that the sole reason Evans’ claim was dismissed was because the judge concluded that she had suffered no “legal damages” because she was paid for her work. However, the 11th Circuit found the judge’s reasoning flawed and held that the lower court’s adoption of his conclusion “was error.” In doing so, the appeals court said that the FMLA provides explicitly for two distinct categories of remedies: (1) damages, including compensation, benefits and other monetary losses; and (2) appropriate equitable relief such as employment, reinstatement and promotion. Evans requested several forms of equitable relief, which the 11th Circuit said were not considered, and further noted that the magistrate judge and the district court appeared to have ignored FLMA’s remedy provisions entirely.

In addition to the question of whether Books-A-Million interfered with Evans’ FMLA rights, the 11th Circuit said a trial was needed on other unresolved issues, such as whether Evans was “prejudiced” by any FMLA interference — and the answer could be yes based upon current evidence.

“It seems plain to us that if an employer coerces an employee to work during her intended FMLA leave period and, subsequently, reassigns her based upon her allegedly poor performance during that period, the employee may well have been harmed by the employer’s FMLA violation,” the court noted.

In closing, the 11th Circuit indicated that any alleged prejudice or harm might be remediable by reinstatement or “front pay,” which the district court will evaluate upon remand.

More information on the case, Evans v. Books-A-Million, can be found at hr.complianceexpert.com.