FMLA Suit Needs Clarification of Restructuring

May 9, 2005 (—A US District Judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a man who claims that, upon his return from a three-month Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) outage, he was told that his position no longer existed - but that he could take a new position with a $20,000 decrease in pay.

In the case Heron v. American Heritage Federal Credit Union, US District Judge Petrese B. Tucker rejected a summary judgment motion from the defense, ruling that the case should be heard by a jury.  The judge found that it was unclear whether or not a restructuring actually did take place and whether or not it was planned before Dennis Heron took leave under FMLA, according to  The Legal Intelligencer.

In June 2000, Dennis Heron was hired by American Heritage, a credit union in Philadelphia, and became vice president of marketing, a position that paid an annual salary of $78,000.   Just over one year later, in July 2001, Heron took leave under FMLA, because he suffered from depression, anxiety, headaches, dizziness, and loss of appetite, according to his lawyer. 

In October 2001, Heron returned to American Heritage, where he says he was told that, due to a company restructuring, his position of vice president had been eliminated, and that he had 24 hours to decide if he wanted to take a new position of marketing manager at a salary of $58,000. The responsibilities of this new position would be the same, except that Heron would no longer oversee the work of the business development manager, according to the Intelligencer report. Heron refused the position.

The defense argued that Heron had complained about his job during his year tenure and said he requested his workload be decreased. For this reason, they said, the restructuring of the position was considered before Heron went on his leave.

Correlation Question

However, Heron’s lawyer said that American Heritage failed to establish that there had not been a correlation between the elimination of Heron’s previous position and his FMLA leave. Heron’s attorney argued that there was “no credible evidence that suggests that defendant considered eliminating Mr. Heron’s position of vice president of marketing until just before Mr. Heron returned from medical leave,” according to the Intelligencer.

According to Judge Tucker, to succeed on an FMLA claim, a plaintiff must prove three things:

  • that he took FMLA leave;
  • that he suffered an “adverse employment decision;”
  • and that the adverse decision was “causally related” to his leave.

The judge ruled that the first two tests were easily proven by Heron. “Neither party can dispute the fact that the position offered to the plaintiff after he returned from FMLA leave was not the equivalent of the position that he had prior,” Tucker wrote.    “Not only did plaintiff’s job title change from ‘vice president of marketing’ to ‘marketing manager,’ arguably a change in status, but his salary was reduced by $20,000, clearly a change in pay,” Tucker wrote.    However, regarding the third point, the judge said that the jury would have to decide.

The defense argued that Heron’s boss had written a memo that showed he was planning on a restructuring a month before Heron took FMLA leave. However, Heron’s lawyer argued that in Heron’s annual review he had been said to be “meeting expectations” and that Heron and his boss had discussed his aim to improve the business development department, responsibility for which was removed under the new job, something the lawyer pointed out didn’t make sense if the reworking of the position was already planned, according to the report.

The judge ruled the issue should be handed to the jury because Tucker saw both sides as a possibility. First, she said, the jury could find that the old position had been eliminated and that there was a new position that required much less responsibility. If this was the case, Heron would not have been entitled to his old job because there would not have been any “equivalent position” when he returned, which probably would have happened then if he hadn’t taken leave.

However, Tucker also said that a jury could find the position had not been eliminated, and that it was the same as the old position, but renamed and with lower pay, showing that American Heritage had not had a true restructuring.