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FMLA Leave Can Lead to Liability for New York Employers


December 10, 2013
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The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) frequently causes compliance concerns for New York employers.

A recent lawsuit highlights that “discouraging” employees from exercising their right to leave benefits can violate the FMLA law.

FMLA

The case, Bailey Stoler et al v. Institute For Integrative Nutrition and Joshua Rosenthal, involves allegations by a class of female employees that their company discouraged them from taking maternity leave under the FMLA and subsequently retaliated against them when they returned to work.

Among the allegations, the plaintiffs maintain that the employer considered female employees’ potential to have children when making employment decisions, which included the creation of a “Maternity Projection Chart.” They further allege that the company routinely demoted or terminated female employees when they became engaged, married, or pregnant. Younger, childless and less experienced workers subsequently replaced them.

With regard to “discouraging” Family Medical Leave Act leave, one plaintiff was allegedly told prior to her maternity leave “that she should consider her priorities in planning her leave and return to work” and that “her position might change when she returned.” Upon returning to work, the plaintiff was demoted two levels below her previous position, resulting in decreased responsibilities and the loss of bonus payments.

Under the FMLA, employers may not “interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or attempt to exercise any” FMLA right. Interfering with an FMLA right not only includes failing to restore employees to their former position, but also refusing to authorize FMLA leave and “discouraging an employee from using such leave.”

In this case, the court concluded that the statements made by the company were sufficient to maintain an FMLA “discouraging” claim and refused to dismiss the suit.

“Taken in totality, it is plausible that such comments were designed to coerce [the employee] to leave her employment or to discourage [the employee] from using her leave,” the court concluded. With regard to one of the employees, the court further held that “Plaintiff’s allegations adequately allege that Defendants began the process of demoting Plaintiff well before her FMLA leave ran out.”

The decision is significant, given that there is little existing case law on the issue of Family Medical Leave Act discouragement. The message for employers is clear — comments by an employer that could be construed to coerce an employer to leave the job or using FMLA leave can lead to significant liability.

If you have any questions about this New York lawsuit or would like to discuss the legal issues involved, please the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work.