Federal Court of Appeals Affirms Workers’ Right to Meaningful Work Under FMLA

In August 2022, the attorneys at Hawks Quindel, S.C. celebrated a big win for one of our clients, Sarah. Although Sarah had won her case under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) in federal court the previous year, her employer had appealed the case to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears appeals from all federal courts in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana, and whose opinions are binding on all of those courts. Sarah’s team of Hawks Quindel attorneys—Aaron Halstead, Lili Behm, and Aaron Bibb—worked hard in the Court of Appeals to make sure Sarah did not lose her victory on appeal.

In its opinion, the court sided with Sarah completely, holding that her employer violated her rights under the FMLA when it dramatically reduced her job duties—but not her pay or benefits—after her return from FMLA leave. Sarah’s case has some important lessons about employee rights under the FMLA, and she has given us permission to share it here.

 

Sarah’s Work Responsibilities Were Illegally Reduced

Sarah loved her job as a lead teacher in a Wisconsin elementary school for children with special needs. Sarah had considerable responsibility as a lead teacher. She taught classes, managed several support staff, developed educational plans to meet her students’ individual needs, and coordinated support for her students with their families, educators, and social workers.

In 2016, Sarah suffered a concussion at work when she was struck in the head by a heavy metal door. She took a few weeks off of work while she recovered from her injury. But when she tried to return to work, the school refused to reinstate her to her position as lead teacher. Instead, the school said, she would be allowed only to support other teachers in their classrooms, with none of the responsibilities she had as a lead teacher.

 

Sarah Protects Her FMLA Rights at Trial

Sarah came to Hawks Quindel for help. We filed a lawsuit on Sarah’s behalf in federal court, arguing that the school had violated the FMLA by failing to reinstate Sarah to her previous job or an equivalent position, as the FMLA requires. The school argued that it had not violated the FMLA because it hadn’t reduced Sarah’s pay or benefits, just her job duties.

Sarah’s lawsuit was heard by Judge William M. Conley. After a trial, Judge Conley ruled in Sarah’s favor, concluding that the school had violated the law because it had “not only refused to return her to her previous position, but instead parked her in a backwater position with materially fewer responsibilities until her contract ran out. Simon deserved better, and the law demanded better.” Judge Conley issued a “declaratory judgment” in Sarah’s favor—that is, Judge Conley “declared” that Sarah’s FMLA rights had been violated. Judge Conley then ordered the school to pay Sarah’s attorney fees.

 

Seventh Circuit Agrees: The FMLA Protects Sarah’s Job Responsibilities

The school appealed Judge Conley’s decision to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. The school tried to convince the Court of Appeals that Judge Conley’s decision was wrong for three reasons, but the court rejected all of the school’s arguments.

First, the school said that the FMLA doesn’t allow a court to issue a declaratory judgment stating that an employee’s rights have been violated. The Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that a declaratory judgment is one of the types of equitable relief that a court may award under the FMLA.

Second, the school said that its FMLA violation was merely “technical” and had not harmed Sarah. But the Court of Appeals sided strongly with Sarah. The court noted that the duties the school had allowed Sarah to perform upon her return were “below her professional capacity,” and she would likely have to explain her “wasted period”—that is, the six months she had spent in a position for which she was greatly overqualified—when applying for future jobs. The court stressed that even though Sarah had not lost any pay or benefits, she had been harmed because she had been forced to leave a “fulfilling job for one in which she [was] overqualified.”

Third, the school argued it should not have to pay any of Sarah’s attorney fees. Again, the court disagreed, holding that the FMLA required the school to pay Sarah’s attorney fees because Judge Conley had entered a declaratory judgment in her favor stating that her FMLA rights had been violated.

 

Three Key Takeaways from Sarah’s Case About Your FMLA Rights

The decisions from Judge Conley and the Court of Appeals clarify three key points under the FMLA that are important for all employers and employees to know:

1. Job Responsibilities are Specifically Protected by the FMLA

After an employee has taken protected FMLA leave, her employer must reinstate her either to 1) her prior position, or 2) one with not only comparable pay and benefits, but also a comparable level of responsibility. As Judge Conley put it, the employer cannot simply “park” the employee “in a backwater position” until she has no choice but to leave.

2. Reduced Job Responsibilities is a Legal Harm Under FMLA

Even if an employee hasn’t lost any pay or benefits after returning to work following FMLA leave, she can still receive a judgment from a federal court stating that her FMLA rights have been violated because her job duties have been reduced. As the Court of Appeals noted, a sudden reduction in job duties can be difficult to explain when applying for a new job. A judgment from a court stating that the reduction in duties was illegal may help in an employee’s work search.

3. Employers Must Pay Attorney Fees When Workers Win FMLA Cases

And third, if an employee receives a judgment stating that her FMLA rights have been violated, the employer must pay her reasonable attorney fees—even if court doesn’t award the employee any monetary damages. The FMLA contains an important provision stating that if an employee receives a judgment in her favor, the court must order her employer to pay her reasonable attorney fees. Both Judge Conley and the Court of Appeals agreed that the declaratory judgment Sarah received, standing alone, required the school to pay her attorney fees. These decisions reaffirmed the importance of the FMLA’s fee-shifting provision, which is essential for helping employees vindicate their rights in court.

 

Hawks Quindel Attorneys Are Here to Protect Your FMLA Rights

At Hawks Quindel, S.C., we understand that people work for more than a paycheck—they seek meaningful work that allows them to use their skills, talents, education, and experience. It’s why teachers like Sarah dedicate their lives to teaching our kids. It’s why custodians work hard to keep our schools and offices clean. It’s why cooks and chefs prepare the food that nourishes us. And it’s why the attorneys and staff at Hawks Quindel work hard every day to advocate for our clients.

Our firm has extensive experience in enforcing employees’ FMLA rights and holding employers accountable. Every day, we help employees whose employers have refused to allow them to take FMLA leave, who have refused to let them return to their jobs after their leave, or who have retaliated against them for exercising their FMLA rights. If you think that your FMLA rights may have been violated, contact Hawks Quindel, S.C. to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced employment attorneys.

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