According to this recent Seventh Circuit’s opinion, “when [the plaintiff] returned from medical leave, her employer … did not allow her to return to her previous position as a lead teacher at her school. Instead, it placed her in a backwater position with fewer responsibilities that required her to split her time between different schools. After a bench trial, the district court determined that the defendant had violated the Family and Medical Leave Act.”
But here’s the thing. The court awarded the plaintiff no money.
Zip. Zilch. Nada.
Heck, she didn’t ask for any, presumably because her new position had no corresponding loss in pay or benefits. Instead, it involved significantly less responsibility, independence, discretion, and management.
When an employee returns from leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the employer must restore them to the same job or an “equivalent job.” The employee is not guaranteed the actual job held before the leave. (There are many limitations on reinstatement.) However, the employer can’t refuse to restore an employee based on subjective fears that the employee would present an “unreasonable risk,” which is what happened here.
Was this transfer a downgrade? Oh, for sure, reasoned the Seventh Circuit.
Indeed, if this case involved an accomplished neurosurgeon returning from leave to a position that required only tracking the hospital’s inventory, we doubt that anyone would question whether the surgeon suffered prejudice. So too if an experienced appellate advocate returning to her law firm was tasked only with organizing the firm’s files for months on end. [Plaintiff], a lead teacher placed as a paraprofessional upon her return from leave for the rest of the school year, is no different. She suffered harm for which the FMLA provides a remedy.
So, the Seventh Circuit declared that the defendant violated the FMLA. Technically, it’s called a declaratory judgment.
(Neither the lower nor appellate courts could order reinstatement because, apparently, the same job no longer existed.)
Some of you may think that the defendant got off scot-free. Well, not exactly.
The FMLA states: “The court in such an action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee, reasonable expert witness fees, and other costs of the action to be paid by the defendant.” The lower court awarded $59,773.62. Presumably, there’s another bill coming for the appeal. Plus, the defendant must pay its attorneys.
FMLA violations are an expensive lesson, even when the plaintiff gets no monetary relief.