Labor & Employment Law Daily Flooring company’s ‘pressuring’ employee to take short maternity leave was not adverse action
Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Flooring company’s ‘pressuring’ employee to take short maternity leave was not adverse action

By Wayne D. Garris Jr, J.D.

After the employee finished her approved maternity leave, the employer allowed her to work from home due to lack of childcare; however, she was terminated after declining to return to the office.

Granting summary judgment for a flooring company against the Title VII claims of a former office manager, a federal district court in Utah held that any alleged pressure the employer placed on the employee to limit her maternity leave and return to work did not constitute an adverse action. Nor was the employee protected by Title VII with regard to her termination because at the time she was terminated, she was working from home after her maternity leave due to lack of childcare, not her pregnancy. Lastly, the court dismissed the employee’s FMLA claims finding that the employee did not prove she actually relied on an HR representative’s incorrect statement that her maternity leave was covered by the FMLA (Battino v. Redi Carpet Sales of Utah, LLC, July 7, 2020, Benson, D.).

The employee worked as an office manager for the employer, a flooring company. In March 2017, she notified her supervisors and an HR manager that she was pregnant. The HR manager told her that the employer offered FMLA leave for the birth of a child.

Leave plan. The employee alleged that management “repeatedly pressured” her not to take a long maternity leave. She requested 42 days of medical leave of absence with a scheduled return date of December 4, 2017. In addition, the general manager agreed to allow the employee to only come into the office 1-2 days per week, while working from home for the remainder of the week, during December 2017 and January 2018.

Termination. After her medical leave ended on December 4, the employee began working full-time under the arranged work from home plan. The employer alleged that the work from home plan resulted in a number of performance issues such as the employee failing to meet deadlines. As a result, it placed the employee on a PIP, which required her to “meet certain deadlines, manage proper inventory procedures, and oversee the resolution of costing and invoicing errors.”

The employee missed a deadline while on the PIP, so on January 10, 2018, the employer demanded that she return to working full-time in the office. The employee did not comply with the employer’s demand due to lack of childcare, so the employer terminated her.

Lawsuit. The employee filed suit alleging pregnancy discrimination, gender discrimination, and retaliation in violation of Title VII. She also brought claims under the FMLA.

Direct evidence. The court first rejected the employee’s claim she has put forth direct evidence of pregnancy and sex discrimination because her employer pressured her to limit her maternity leave and then terminated her due to her work-from-home schedule. This did not constitute direct evidence because the employer’s action could be interpreted in two different ways—she was terminated due to her pregnancy or she was terminated for refusing to return to the office while working from home.

No adverse action. Under the indirect method, the court found that the alleged pressure from her employer did not constitute an adverse action under Title VII. There was no evidence the pressure resulted in a “significant’ change in her employment status with the company.

Termination. Turning to her termination, the court noted that the employee failed to provide any evidence that established that any nonpregnant or male employees would have been treated more favorably under similar circumstances. Specifically, the employee was terminated because she refused to physically return to work on a full-time basis and she did not put forth any other employees who did not comply with an instruction to return to work. Furthermore, the work from home agreement was an accommodation provided to the employee based on her childcare needs—not her pregnancy or sex. Thus, there was no evidence that her termination while working from home was discriminatory.

Retaliation. The court quickly dismissed the employee’s retaliation claim, explaining that she did not complain of discrimination or engage in any other protected activity.

FMLA claims. The employer argued that it was entitled to summary judgment on the employee’s FMLA claims because it employed fewer than 50 employees within 75 miles of the employee’s worksite, thus she was not eligible for FMLA leave. The employee, however, argued that the employer was equitably estopped from using FMLA ineligibility as a defense because she relied on the HR manager’s inaccurate statement that the employer provided FMLA leave.

In order to succeed on her equitable estoppel argument, the employee had to show actual and reasonable reliance on the HR manager’s statement. The court held that the employee failed to show that she actually relied on the HR manager’s statement. She requested 42 days of medical leave and returned to work remotely at the end of her medical leave—there was no evidence that she changed her leave request based on the HR manager’s representation. Furthermore, the employee wasn’t terminated due to her use of medical leave but for her refusal to return to the office while working remotely. Because the equitable estoppel argument failed, the employer was entitled to summary judgment on the FMLA claims.

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