Even with record numbers of employers winning Family Medical Leave Act lawsuits, family-leave related issues remain complex and treacherous for most firms to navigate. The fact that Georgia has no state equivalent of the federal FMLA, and that firms of fewer than 50 are not subject to its requirements, doesn’t make compliance any easier. From pregnancies to off-the-job injuries, situations that temporarily remove a worker from his place of employment must be treated with care.
In the case of Martin v. Tall Brown Dog, LLC, a recently hired business development employee, Jennifer Martin, became pregnant shortly after joining the firm. At the time, she advised her vice president (VP), then a month later asked how to plan for delivery since she was not yet eligible for leave under the FMLA. The next day, the company VP told her, “This is not going to work out.” Assuming she was being fired, the plaintiff cleaned out her desk and left the facility.
The VP told others that the meeting had been to discuss her performance and that he did not tell her she was fired. However, after the meeting, he sent the firm’s CEO an email that read, “I let Jennifer go today.”
Martin sued for pregnancy discrimination under Title VII and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan let the case move forward based upon the VP’s email to the CEO. Even without the email, the court noted, the short timespan between the plaintiff’s communication about pregnancy and her termination was enough to send the case to a jury trial.
An Opposite Outcome
Another case involving a negative action subsequent to leave had the opposite result, because the firm had clear, consistent (and prudent) policies, procedures and communications. Sotera Defense Solutions Inc. employed Gary Waag in a series of progressively more responsible positions until he severely injured his hand by falling off the roof of his home. Waag took FMLA for several months to recuperate, and in the interim, the defense contractor placed someone else in his position.
When Waag returned to work, he was moved to an equivalent position to the one he had prior to FMLA leave. However, two months later, Sotera experienced a drastic work decrease and engaged in layoffs. Waag was one of the first to be let go. Because the company could clearly prove that its need to reduce the workforce was legitimate, and there was no communication to contradict that assertion, the courts sided with Sotera.