A Chicago law firm employee became pregnant at the wrong time—just as the recession took hold in 2007. When she was fired while on FMLA leave, the HR director let her know just how she felt about it.
What happened. “Linda” was the marketing director for the law firm of SmithAmundsen from early 2005 through early 2008. She announced her pregnancy in summer 2007. Linda’s baby was due in December, but high blood pressure forced her to take leave before the baby was born, beginning in early November.
In January 2008, the firm’s executive committee met and decided to eliminate the positions held by Linda and the firm’s IT director.
Two members of the Executive Committee went to the HR director. They asked her to check with outside legal counsel about firing Linda. She did so, gave the go-ahead, and also recommended firing the firm’s IT director for poor performance. Both employees were terminated.
Linda was notified that she was being terminated because her position was being eliminated as part of a restructuring. She came to the office to retrieve her belongings. However, she met the HR director in the elevator lobby on her way out. The HR director told her that the firm had let many people go because they became pregnant or took medical leave, and that the whole group might have a class action lawsuit. Linda subsequently sued for violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and retaliation for her use of FMLA absence.
A judge in federal district court ruled that the HR director’s job responsibilities were not related to the decision to terminate Linda, and because the HR director was not involved in the decision-making process, her statements concerning Linda’s termination were not admissible as an admission by a employer.
Without those statements, the court found that Linda had no evidence of a direct connection between taking FMLA leave and her termination. As a result, the judge issued summary judgment for SmithAmundsen. Linda appealed to the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
What the court said. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit overruled the district judge. They pointed out that the decision to fire Linda wasn’t final until HR approved it—in consultation with outside counsel—so the director was definitely a decision maker in the situation. Thus, her statements were not hearsay, they must be admitted, and the district court must reconsider the case.
Point(s) to remember: While it is surprising that the district court would believe that the HR director was not involved in the termination decision, there is a larger message here. When making termination decisions, it is critical to consider the opinions of all decision makers. Once a decision has been made (whether to terminate or not), ensure that all management representatives are on the same page and present a united front regarding the reason(s) for termination.
Case: Makowski v. SmithAmundsen, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, No. 10-3330 (11/9/11).