Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Can I Eliminate the Position of an Employee on FMLA Leave?

A lot can happen in three months in the workplace. Just because an employee who may be affected by a reorganization or reduction in force is on a FMLA  leave doesn’t necessarily mean that the employer’s hands are tied. 

A Tennessee district court recently reiterated that an employer can eliminate the position of an employee on FMLA leave for legitimate reasons. 

The plaintiff in the case, Ms. Stewart, was an executive assistant for DaVita Healthcare Partners. While on an FMLA leave she learned that the person for whom she worked in the organization resigned. To make matters worse, the company decided that it would take the opportunity to reorganize the department in furtherance of its financial restructuring initiative. 

When the plaintiff’s FMLA leave expired she returned to work but was notified that her position was being eliminated. She was told that she could “hang out” and more or less float through the end of the month during which time she could apply for other vacancies in the company, and by staying through to the beginning of the following month, she would be entitled to another month of health insurance at the employee rate. The plaintiff did apply for at least one other position, which was not an executive assistant position, but was not awarded the spot. The plaintiff was ultimately laid off and sued the company for interference with and retaliation for exercising her FMLA rights. 

The District Court dismissed both claims. 

To show FMLA interference, a plaintiff must establish as a preliminary matter that: She was an eligible employee; the defendant was a covered employer; she was entitled to FMLA leave; she gave notice of her intent to take leave; and  the defendant denied her FMLA benefits or interfered with FMLA rights. 

The court found that the plaintiff was not denied her requested leave time. Moreover, the plaintiff was unable to show that she was denied reinstatement to an equivalent position. She was, in fact, reinstated albeit almost simultaneously notified that her position had been eliminated. The court was not persuaded by her claim that an equivalent vacancy existed in the company for which she was denied. Rather, the court found that “an equivalent position is virtually identical to the employee’s former position in terms of pay, benefits and working conditions, including privileges, prerequisites and status.” 

Additionally, the court found that the plaintiff did not allege facts to support a retaliation claim. To show FMLA retaliation, a plaintiff must at least demonstrate that: she was engaged in an activity protected by the FMLA; the employer knew that she was exercising her FMLA rights; after learning of her exercise of FMLA rights, the employer took an employment action adverse to her and that there was a causal connection between the protected FMLA activity and the adverse employment action. The employer in this case was able to show that it eliminated the plaintiff’s position because it was reorganizing to reduce expenses, not because the plaintiff exercised her FMLA rights.

The employer did many things right in this case. Although it seized on the opportunity to reorganize when plaintiff’s superior unexpectedly resigned during plaintiff’s FMLA leave, it could show proof that the reorganization was financially motivated. Just as importantly, the employer allowed the plaintiff to exhaust her FMLA leave and return to work to explore whether other vacancies existed that she might fill. It probably also didn’t hurt the employer’s image that it allowed the plaintiff to remain employed through the beginning of the following month in order to extend her health insurance coverage for an additional month at the employee rate. 

Employees who are on FMLA leaves can add a wrinkle to an employer’s reduction in force or reorganization plan, requiring the employer to ensure that the FMLA rights of the employee are not violated in the process. Consulting with an experienced labor and employment attorney can assist employers to reach their workplace goals while remaining compliant with the myriad of employment laws.