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FMLA case study

Case Study

“Crappy” is a technical legal term that I will not define here. But this is essentially what a federal court in Connecticut found in Wanamaker v. West port Board of Education, 899 F. Supp. 2d 193 (D. Conn. 2012). This is a well reasoned case that is a must read for attorneys who represent clients subject to pregnancy related or caregiver discrimination.

Here’s what happened:

Since 2004, Sally Wanamaker worked as a computer teacher in the Connecticut public school system. She was a star employee. In 2009, she gave birth to a daughter and was injured during the delivery. Her doctor informed the school system that she would need an additional thirty to sixty days to recover. At first, the school system told Ms. Wanamaker that the temporary teacher covering her position would continue to do so until she could return. However, the school later told Ms. Wanamaker that the substitute teacher would take her job permanently, but she could return as a substitute teacher. Ms. Wanamaker followed up with the school, saying that she could return if the school allowed her to teach while sitting down and allowed her to take some brief medical leave. The school said thanks, but no thanks. When Ms. Wanamaker appealed through the school system’s internal procedures, the system backed down, but still refused to put her back into the computer teacher position. Throughout this time, the school superintendent was alleged to have said some unfavorable things about employees taking medical leave.

Ms. Wanamaker sued, claiming, among other things, that the system had interfered with her FMLA leave and had retaliated against her for attempting to take leave. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss. A key issue for this case was the school system’s position that it could not have interfered with Ms. Wanamaker’s FMLA leave because it offered her a fulltime teaching position, even if it wasn’t the one she had held for the past eight years.

Under the FMLA, an employer has to return an employee to her original job or its equivalent upon her return from leave.

Here, the school system said that returning Ms. Wanamaker to a fulltime teaching position was the equivalent of, if not the same as, the position that she left. The court noted:

In order to constitute an adverse employment action, it is not enough that defendants gave plaintiff a subjectively less preferred teaching assignment; the assignment must be “materially less prestigious, materially less suited to h[er] skills and expertise, or materially less conducive to career advancement.”

Sotomayor v. City of New York, 862 F. Supp. 2d 226, 255 (E.D.N.Y. 2012) (quoting Galabaya v. New York City Bd. of Educ., 202 F.3d 636, 641 (2d Cir. 2000)). The court disagreed with the defendants, finding that the complaint (which it had to accept as true at this stage) alleged that the school first tried to put her in a substitute position. It then tried to put her in a regular teaching position, despite the fact that her doctor requested that she be placed back in her computer teaching position. Thus, the court reasoned, the replacement assignment was “materially less suited to her skills and expertise.”

The court also included a meaty review of the legal basis for interference and retaliation claims, individual liability and governmental immunity under the FMLA, as well as ADA coverage for temporary disabilities. As an added bonus, the court discussed Ms. Wanamaker’s claims under the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA), a unique state statute providing additional protections to employees in that state.

I don’t want to overstate this win; this is a decision on a motion to dismiss at the inception of the lawsuit. At this point, Ms. Wanamaker still has to prove her case. Moreover, this case is a trial court opinion from a federal court in Connecticut. Other courts need not follow the court’s reasoning here. Still, the thought and care that the judge obviously put into these issues means that other courts likely will cite this opinion as persuasive authority. And employees everywhere can use it to argue that an employer cannot move an employee to a crappy job and then successfully hide behind the equivalent position provision of the FMLA. Best of luck, Ms. Wanamaker!

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