Court Finds That Employer Is not Entitled to Dismissal of the Employee's Claim for Handicap / Perceived Handicap Discrimination Based Upon Pregnancy Related Complications

Gregory S. Schaer, a Monmouth County based New Jersey Employment Attorney located in Manalapan, represented the employee in a lawsuit against their employer alleging claims of handicap/perceived handicap discrimination, pregnancy discrimination and retaliation.

In Spagnoli v. Brown and Brown Metro, Inc. , 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 59698, a female employee alleged that her employer engaged in handicap discrimination and perceived handicap discrimination in violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination when it terminated her after she took a medical leave as a result of pregnancy related complications.

While the employee was out on Family Medical Leave, the Company claimed that they restructured the employees Department and eliminated her position. As the employee was preparing to return to work from her medical leave, she was notified that her position was eliminated and that she was being terminated.

The employer claimed that the employee had exhausted her FMLA leave more than two (2) weeks before she returned to work and therefore was not entitled to reinstatement. The employee contended that the Company never notified the employee that certain portions of her prior absence would be considered FMLA leave and that she therefore did not exceed her FMLA leave. In addition, the employee claimed that she was never notified that she was approaching the end of her entitled period of FMLA leave and that she was given every reason to believe that her absence was deemed to be covered under the FMLA.

The court held that at some point the employer became aware that the employee would exceed the required FMLA period. In addition, the court held that although the employer clearly knew when the employee’s FMLA leave would expire, they did not inform the employee of these dates despite their ongoing communication with her. In addition, when the employee was eventually terminated, she was told that the termination was the result of a department reorganization with no mention that the employee had exceeded her allotted FMLA time. Furthermore, during her absence, the employer represented to the employee that the length of her anticipated recuperation was reasonable and that it would have no impact on her job.

Based upon these reasons, the court found that there were issues of material fact surrounding whether the employee did, in fact, exceed her FMLA leave or whether she was somehow granted an extended period of protected leave by her employer.

The Company argued that even if the employee could establish that her leave was FMLA protected, the employee had no right to reinstatement because her job was terminated pursuant to a departmental reorganization. The court held that although it is well established that the right to reinstatement is not absolute in that an employer need not reinstate an employee who would have lost her job even if she had not taken FMLA leave, the court held that there were significant inconsistencies that raised questions about the employer’s reason for the employee’s termination.

The court noted that although the employer’s reason for the employee’s termination was a departmental reorganization, the Company had drafted an initial letter that explained that she was being terminated because she exceeded her FMLA leave. Moreover, the court noted that despite the alleged reorganization of the department, the employee was the only person terminated and had no advance notice that the department was being reorganized. Indeed, the court noted that a week before the employee was to return to work, the Human Resource Department called her to find out if she would be returning so that she could be placed on payroll.

In addition, the court found that there was no documentation about the purported reorganization and no criteria for the implementation for the reorganization. Furthermore, the court found that the decision to terminate the employee was made at the same time that she told the Company that she would be returning to work within a week and that the decision to terminate the employee’s position was made by reference to the employee herself and her position.

In addition, the court held that there was no consideration of alternatives to terminating plaintiff and the draft letter to the employee referenced numerous other reasons for her termination unrelated to any reorganization.

To speak with an experienced New Jersey Employment Law Attorney, contact the Law Offices of Gregory S. Schaer, LLC, conveniently located in Monmouth County, New Jersey.