When is a demotion against FMLA law?

by on January 14, 2010 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Can you change an employee’s position upon their return from FMLA leave? Here are two instances the clarify some of the details of FMLA law.

FMLA law suit: ‘They changed my job title when I got back from FMLA leave!’

It ‘felt’ like a demotion, so this employee sued for retaliation

Nervous about making personnel changes that involve a “perceived demotion” of an employee who took leave under FMLA? The law says that you shouldn’t be – as long as you can show that the employment decision had nothing to do with the leave, it’s not against FMLA law.

Facts of the case

General Manager Roy Hillstrom returned to the hotel where he worked after a six-week FMLA leave to learn he’d been dubbed “Room Division Manager.” His new job had the same salary and benefits as his old job – and similar duties.

Problem was, the new title looked like a step down to Hillstrom, especially since he now reported to a new GM instead of to the president as he had before.

Hillstrom claimed that his “demotion” was against FMLA law. He filed a lawsuit in which he alleged the job change was in retaliation for his FMLA leave.

But the employer prevailed because it presented a clear and thorough timeline to the court. The personnel change was related to business developments and a new org chart, not to Hillstrom’s leave. Had Hillstrom not taken leave, he’d still have been assigned to the new role.

In reaching its decision, the court noted that the employer’s documentation proved that the decision wasn’t made with “reckless disregard” for FMLA law.

Cite: Hillstrom v. Best Western TLC Hotel, U.S. Court of Appeals, 3rd Circuit. No. 03-1972, 12/31/03.

Company hit with punitive damages because HR didn’t heed FMLA law

Always know FMLA law before you make a decision

The HR director thought he was doing the right thing. An employee came back from FMLA leave at less than 100% capacity. HR decided that he wouldn’t be able to perform adequately and refused to restore his old position. But that decision backfired in a recent lawsuit.

The case involved a maintenance mechanic who was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease for which he took an FMLA leave. Although he still experienced chronic neck pain and headaches, he was certified by a physician to return to work, but limited to “no heavy duty work, including heavy lifting.”

Ultimately, the case turned on whether “heavy-duty work” was part of the “essential functions” of the job. The HR Director felt it was. The man sued, arguing it was not, and that he was denied his rights under FMLA law.

At trial, it became apparent that HR hadn’t done its homework. The man demonstrated that he could lift 50 pounds comfortably and 100+ pounds occasionally. More importantly, he proved that during 18 years on the job, he’d rarely had to perform heavy lifting (about 100 pounds). This made it clear to the jury that heavy lifting wasn’t an essential job function.

The jury looked at the requirements of the job and the man’s medical records, as well as the man’s treatment requirements, capabilities and limitations. Based on the evidence, the jury found that the employer’s failure to restore him violated FMLA law. The company – which got hit with compensatory and punitive damages – wasn’t trying to get rid of the worker. HR simply assumed too much and didn’t ask the right questions about whether he was fit enough to do his old job.

Cite: Duty v. Norton-Alcoa Proppants U.S. District Court of Appeals, 8th circuit, No. 01-1478. 6/18/02.

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