Performance issues were the cover-up for FMLA maternity leave discrimination

by on June 23, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

FMLA maternity leave laws and workplace discrimination

“I’ll get right to the point, Cassie. You’re just not working out as a supervisor,” Ed Miller said. “We’re putting you on your old job as a machine operator.”

Cassie stiffened. “You’re demoting me?” she cried. “How ironic. It was only yesterday that I submitted FMLA maternity leave paperwork for my pregnancy.”

Workers petition is the reason, not FMLA maternity leave

“That’s just a coincidence,” Ed said. “Geez, we even have a signed petition from your team that says you suck as a leader.”

“What sucks is that you are trying to get rid of me because I am pregnant,” Cassie said. “None of this came up until after I told you I was expecting.”

“Not true,” Ed replied. “Your last review said you needed to improve on leadership, and you haven’t. It’s just good business.”

Cassie later sued for pregnancy discrimination. Did she win?

The decision

Yes. A circuit court said a jury should decide if the demotion amounted to discrimination and a violation of FMLA maternity leave laws. Usually that leads to a hefty settlement check so that a jury won’t hear the case.

The employer argued that the demotion resulted from poor performance. Evidence: Cassie had received a recent “needs work” review, and there was that petition signed by her workers.

Circumstantial evidence

The court found, however, that Cassie presented enough evidence to show that her pregnancy was “more likely than not” the real reason for the demotion, and that discrimination may have been the true motivation.
First, the petition did not surface until after she announced her pregnancy. Secondly, the timing of the demotion was suspect, just one day after she applied for time off under FMLA maternity leave laws. Finally, the company did not follow its own policy covering “associate performance counseling.”

Note: The court said that, by itself, the timing of the adverse action is not enough to show pretext. But there was just enough other evidence to raise the suspicion that performance issues were a cover-up.

Lesson learned: The outcome may have been much different if Ed had followed company policy, taken the time to build a file documenting Carrie’s poor performance, and waited until after Cassie returned from FMLA maternity leave to demote her.

Cite: DeBoer v. Musashi Auto Parts, Inc., No. 04-10467, 6th Cir., 2/25/05. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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