Concluding that the employer’s failure to notify a pregnant employee of her FMLA rights and to reinstate her to her former position or any other equivalent position after taking leave unlawfully interfered with her FMLA rights, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Clements v. Prudential Protective Services, LLC, reversed a district court finding of summary judgment in the employer’s favor.
Telitha Clements worked for Prudential Protective Services, LLC (“Prudential”) as a security guard in Detroit, Michigan from 2006 until she was laid off in 2009. Clements worked at the New Center Complex for years under a number of different employers, but she always had the same supervisor, Lamont Lively. Lively scheduled the employees and had the authority to approve or deny vacation requests.
In 2009, Clements was pregnant with her second child and anticipated having the baby in late May. Clements informed Lively that her last day of work would be May 23, 2009. Just as he had done prior to having her first baby, Lively informed Clements that she should let him know when she was ready to return to work, and he would put her back on the schedule. Neither Lively nor Clements notified the main office about her leave. No Prudential employee ever provided Clements notice of her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act prior to her taking her leave.
Approximately six weeks after the birth of her son, Clements attempted to reach Lively and let him know she was ready to return to work. Lively was away from work due to the death of his mother, so Clements spoke with an employee named Sabrina. Sabrina informed Clements that the hours at the New Center Complex had been cut due to a lack of business, so Clements would not be back on the schedule at the New Center Complex. There is a dispute as to whether Clements was told to report to the main office.
Clements visited the Prudential main office on at least two occasions to obtain paperwork for her unemployment benefits. On or about August 24, 2009, Clements spoke with Prudential’s Vice President of Operations. He informed her she was not laid off because there were security jobs available at other locations. Prudential stopped authorizing Clements’ unemployment benefits after this meeting. Clements continued calling Prudential for the next two months regarding a position at the New Center Complex, but was not returned to work.
Clements files suit
In July 2011, Clements filed an FMLA interference suit in federal court claiming that Prudential interfered with her rights because upon returning from leave she was not restored by Prudential to the position she held before going on leave or an equivalent position. Prudential moved for summary judgment stating Clements did not comply with the FMLA notice requirements prior to taking leave; Clements suffered no prejudice from Prudential’s failure to notify her of her leave rights, because Prudential would have laid her off even if she had not taken leave; and Clements voluntarily failed to seek reassignment to a different job. The District Court granted summary judgment.
The Sixth Circuit disagrees
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case to district court. The Court found genuine issues of material fact, including whether Clements was “laid off” during her leave, whether a similar job existed to which she could have returned, and if so, whether she was aware of the open position.
According to the court, Prudential had “virtually nothing” in the way of written policies and procedures for any aspect of its business. The VP of Operations described the hierarchy of the reporting system as “kind of loose.” As a result, there were no forms for an employee who wished to take leave to fill out, no paperwork of any kind to be prepared when an employee went on “leave” and no written procedures to be followed when leave was taken. Indeed, Clements apparently believed she had the choice to receive unemployment benefits rather than take an assignment in another building. In an effort to obtain unemployment benefits, Clements requested a letter stating she had been laid off, and a Prudential employee provided it. Prudential later argued Clements was not laid off and that she could have returned to work whenever she wanted—just not at the New Center Complex.
Takeaway for employers
Without clear written policies and procedures addressing leaves of absence that are clearly communicated to their employees, employers like Prudential here have difficulty demonstrating that employees failed to follow the rules. In addition, designating human resources personnel to handle leave issues as they arise will help ensure consistent handling of leave requests throughout the organization and in compliance with the law.