Worker Claims That She Was Unlawfully Fired In Retaliation For Taking Maternity Leave
Having represented employment discrimination victims for more than twenty years, our Marion County labor attorneys know that employers frequently punish employees who take maternity leave. In far too many cases, our Ocala, Florida labor lawyers have learned, employees who take maternity leave do not have their jobs waiting for them when they are able to return to work. In this article, our Marion County labor attorneys explain how the decision in Lankford v. Salvation Army, Case No. 4:20-cv-12656 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 20, 2023) illustrates the protection guaranteed by federal employment law to pregnant employees who take maternity leave.
Employees’ Right To Maternity Leave
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) prohibits employers from discriminating against women on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. The PDA, however, does not require employers to offer pregnant employees maternity leave. Because the PDA provides pregnant employees with limited job security when they need to miss work in order to give birth, Congress passed the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in 1993.
Under the FMLA employees have a right to a total of twelve workweeks of leave, without pay, during any twelve-month period due to an inability to work due to pregnancy, for prenatal care, for the birth of a child and to care for their newborn child, and because of their own serious health following the birth of the child. Thus, pregnant employees have the right to take twelve weeks of maternity leave under the FMLA. In order to be eligible for FMLA leave, an employee must be employed by the employer for at least 12 months and must work at a worksite where the employer employs at least 50 employees or at least 50 employees within 75 miles of that worksite. Without satisfying those statutory prerequisites, pregnant employees are not eligible for leave under the FMLA and must look to the PDA for protection.
Upon the expiration of FMLA leave, employees have the right to be restored by the employer to the position they held when the FMLA leave began or to an equivalent position. Unlike the PDA, therefore, the FMLA provides pregnant employees job security by mandating that employers return them to their job when they miss work due to pregnancy, for prenatal care, for the birth of a child and to care for their newborn child, or because of their own serious health condition following the birth of the child. The FMLA also contains an anti-retaliation provision. Under the FMLA, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who take FMLA leave due to pregnancy, for prenatal care, for the birth of a child and to care for their newborn child, or because of their own serious health condition following the birth of the child. An employer that terminates an employee because she sought or took FMLA-protected maternity leave, violates the FMLA.
Retaliatory Discharge Lawsuit
In Lankford, a woman named Lankford brought a wrongful termination case against her former employer, the Salvation Army, pursuant to the FMLA. Lankford maintains that the Salvation Army fired her in retaliation for taking maternity leave under the FMLA.
Lankford began working for the Salvation Army in 2007. In May 2016, Lankford was the Assistant Director of Operations. She requested a large raise in exchange for concessions, including unenrolling from the Salvation Army’s health insurance program for three years. The Salvation Army accepted Lankford’s proposal. Lankford claims that this proposal applied only to the Assistant Director of Operations position, while the Salvation Army contends that it applied to any position Lankford held during the three years covering the Agreement.
In January 2017 Lankford requested and the Salvation Army approved four months of maternity leave. When she returned, Lankford was moved to a new position as Executive Assistant. This was not a promotion and included no pay increase. Lankford spoke to the Salvation Army’s director of human resources, Weathers, about re-enrolling in the Salvation Army’s health insurance plan because she no longer held the Assistant Director of Operations position. Weathers provided her with the necessary paperwork, Lankford completed it, Weathers approved it, and Lankford was re-enrolled in the Salvation Army’s health insurance effective January 1, 2018.
In January 2018, Lankford informed her supervisors that she was pregnant and requested four months of maternity leave beginning in July. The Salvation Army approved her leave. Lankford began leave on July 11, 2018 and gave birth on July 25, 2018. While Lankford was out on leave, the Salvation Army administration claims that it learned for the first time that Lankford had re-enrolled in their health insurance. The Salvation Army decided that, because Lankford had “secretly and fraudulently re-enrolled in benefits in violation of her agreement with Salvation Army, termination was warranted.” However, the Salvation Army decided to wait to terminate Lankford until she returned so as not to “disturb her leave.” While Lankford was out on leave, the Salvation Army also gathered statements from her co-workers complaining of discourteous behavior and interpersonal conflict. Lankford returned to work on October 1, 2018 and was fired that day.
Evidence Of Retaliatory Discharge
The Salvation Army filed a motion with the trial court seeking dismissal of Lankford’s retaliatory discharge claim. In denying the Salvation Army’s motion for dismissal, the trial court determined that Lankford had presented evidence “to think Salvation Army’s proffered reason may be pretextual.” In other words, the trial court found that Lankford had presented evidence sufficient to establish that the real reason she was fired was because she took FMLA-protected maternity leave.
In support of its conclusion the trial court pointed out the “parties dispute whether the agreement [regarding health insurance] pertained only to the Assistant Director of Operations position Lankford had at the time she proposed and received the raise, or whether it also extended to the Executive Assistant position to which Lankford was transferred after her first maternity leave.” The trial court also observed that Lankford’s “re-enrollment occurred with the participation and approval of Salvation Army’s human resources director.” Thus, according to Lankford, the “Salvation Army was aware of her re-enrollment months before it claims to have ‘discovered’ it during summer of 2018 because the records were in her personnel file.”
If Lankford is “right about either (or both) of these assertions,” the trial court reasoned, “then Salvation Army’s argument that it terminated Lankford because it discovered she committed fraud has ‘no basis in fact’ and is, accordingly, pretextual.” Consequently, the trial court concluded that whether the Salvation Army terminated Lankford in retaliation for taking maternity leave in violation of the FMLA is an issue for the jury to resolve.
Free Consultation For Pregnant Employees
One of the most important decisions pregnant workers must make is which labor law attorneys to consult with regarding their rights under federal employment law. As part of our dedication to protecting and vindicating the rights of pregnant employees, an experienced labor law attorney will speak with you personally and you will receive the individualized attention your case deserves. We offer free confidential case evaluations for pregnant employees, and you will not have to pay to speak with our labor law lawyers regarding your rights as a pregnant worker. We are available for consultation at your convenience, including scheduling telephone consultations for evenings and weekends.
Marion County, FL Labor Lawyers
Based in Ocala, Florida, and representing workers throughout Florida, our labor attorneys in Marion County, Florida have dedicated their practice to fighting for the rights of employment discrimination victims. If you have experienced pregnancy discrimination or have questions about your rights as a pregnant employee, please contact our office for a free consultation with our labor lawyers in Marion County, Florida. Our employee rights law firm takes employment discrimination cases on a contingency fee basis. This means that there are no attorney’s fees incurred unless there is a recovery and our attorney’s fees come solely from the monetary award that you recover.