On February 21, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take on a case from the 7th Circuit involving an employee who claimed her employer violated the FMLA. The lower court ruled that the employer's actions were not a mere technical violation.
While at work, Sarah, a lead teacher, suffered a concussion when a student kicked a steel door into her head. She took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and was cleared to return to part-time, light-duty work later that same month, with no restrictions about a month later.
When Sarah returned from medical leave, however, her employer did not return to her previous position because its business director and others had determined that doing so would present an "unreasonable risk." Instead, it placed Sarah in a support position with duties resembling those of a paraprofessional. Although she received the same salary and benefits in her new role, it involved significantly less responsibility, independence, discretion, and management than her previous position.
Sarah sued, claiming the employer failed to return her to an equivalent position.
The Appeals court determined that the employer had violated the FMLA and awarded Sarah declaratory relief and attorney's fees. The employer tried to argue that the employee suffered no harm from its actions, so, it shouldn't have to pay the relief; that neither were appropriate under the circumstances.
After all the legal wrangling over how much the employer would have to pay, the result was that the employer lost its argument. The court found that Sarah did suffer harm because she was put in a "backwater position with materially fewer responsibilities," and not her former or an equivalent position. This was not a technical violation. The court likened the situation to that of returning a neurosurgeon to a job taking inventory.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which did not take it under review, so the Appeals Court ruling stands.
Simon v. Cooperative Educational Service Agency #5, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Nos. 21-2139 & 22-1035, August 16, 2022.
Key to Remember: Because the Supreme Court decided not to address the issue, an Appeals Court's opinion stands, and employers should be aware that job protection is a serious component of FMLA.
This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.