By: James B. Sherman, Esq. and Phoebe A. Taurick, Esq.
On October 30, 2012, the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota decided a case regarding reinstatement of employees after taking parental leave under the Minnesota Parental Leave Act (MPLA). This case involved the termination of an employee after taking parental leave.
Issues the court resolved include: (1) whether specific language is required to extend leave; (2) who bears the burden to show an employee was terminated pursuant to a bona fide layoff and recall system; and (3) whether the MPLA specifically exempts a layoff pursuant to a reduction-in-force (RIF).
The plaintiff requested parental leave in September 2009. The parties agreed that the leave would begin on September 10, 2009 and run until November 1, 2009. She gave birth on September 10, and her doctor recommended that she take eight weeks to recover from complications from her delivery. She contacted her manager and requested to "come back on the 9 th as long as that is ok with you," to which he replied, "Nov 9 will work." On November 4, the plaintiff's employment was terminated. She brought suit, alleging violation of the MPLA.
The MPLA requires an employer to grant up to six weeks of unpaid leave of absence to an employee in connection with certain events, including the birth of a child. This time can exceed six weeks if the employer agrees. The Minnesota Supreme Court recently analyzed a similar question, which was discussed in a previous Wessels Sherman Client Alert article in June 2012. In that case, the court held that "absent a specific agreement to reinstate, an extension of leave under the MPLA does not extend the right to reinstatement." However, the court also noted that when the MPLA is ambiguous, it should not be read narrowly in order to provide the employee the protections of the statute. Using this case as guidance, the court in the present case determined that "no specific language is required to extend leave; rather, a specific agreement to reinstate is reached when an employee requests a date to return to work, and an employer consents." Using this standard, the court determined that the plaintiff and her employer reached a specific agreement to extend her reinstatement date to November 9, 2009.
Next, the court distinguished retaliation and failure-to-reinstate cases under the MPLA. In retaliation cases, the court analyzes whether the employee was terminated in retaliation for taking MPLA leave, using a "burden-shifting" framework. In failure-to-reinstate cases, on the other hand, the court determines whether the employee was on leave protected by the MPLA when terminated. As this was a failure-to-reinstate case, the employer bore the burden to show that it terminated the plaintiff pursuant to a bona fide layoff and recall system.
Finally, the court addressed the employer's contention that it terminated the plaintiff as part of a RIF, which it argued falls under the bona fide layoff and recall exception to reinstatement. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires that an employee who takes leave under the Act "be restored by the employer to the position of employment held by the employee when the leave commenced." However, an exception exists if can employer can show that independent of the leave, the employee would have been laid off during the FMLA leave period, included as part of a RIF. While the FMLA is often useful in interpreting the MPLA, in this case, the language between the two statutes is not sufficiently similar. The MPLA does not specifically provide for an exception for layoffs pursuant to a RIF, and the court held that the language used is not broad enough to include this exception.
Applying these principles, the court held that the plaintiff was not terminated pursuant to a bona fide layoff and recall system, and thus her termination violated the MPLA. Employers can take several lessons from this decision:
- Employers who agree to a reinstatement date beyond the six weeks of leave guaranteed by the MPLA are bound by the same reinstatement obligations to the employee as if the employee had only taken six weeks.
- While the FMLA does not protect an employee from a layoff due to a RIF that would have happened regardless of the leave, the MPLA does protect such an employee.
- An employer who wishes to terminate an employee on MPLA-protected leave should have a written policy or other evidence that it is following a bona fide layoff and recall policy, as this is the employer's burden to show.