An employee with performance issues was terminated as part of a reduction in force only one day after returning from maternity leave. She maintained that her employer failed to reinstate her to the same or comparable position in violation of state law.
What happened. In April 2004, “Alexandra” was hired as a staffing manager in Robert Half International, Inc.’s (RHI’s) Office Team division. In that capacity, she was responsible for placing administrative professionals into temporary positions.
In March 2006, after returning from maternity leave for the birth of her first child, Alexandra requested—and was granted—a transfer to the parent company’s Robert Half Legal (RHL) division in Minneapolis, which places lawyers, paralegals, law clerks, and legal support professionals on a temporary and permanent basis throughout the country. She started working for RHL’s permanent placement team, which enabled her to work a reduced workday and manage her child’s daycare schedule.
Alexandra was still expected to meet the same production goals as all other full-time employees on the “perm team.” Initially, she did not have any trouble doing so, but her numbers began to decline after being promoted to division director around January 1, 2008.
Alexandra’s supervisors had regular discussions with her about her performance during the spring of 2008. Even after reducing the number of employees Alexandra supervised, her production numbers for March and April fell short of expectations.
Meanwhile, Alexandra learned in late January 2008 that she was pregnant with her second child, and her supervisor learned of the pregnancy within a month or so. Her leave of absence began on August 29, 2008—the day her second child was born.
She received a September 11, 2008, letter, advising her that she was eligible for up to 12 weeks of short-term disability/FMLA leave in a 12-month period and that she could request a personal leave of up to 4 additional weeks, but there was “no guarantee of job reinstatement” at the end of a personal leave.
Alexandra took the additional leave and returned to work on December 1, 2008. The next day, Alexandra’s supervisor notified her that her position was among those slated for elimination as part of a reduction in force. That was Alexandra’s last day of work.
She filed suit against RHI, alleging that the company failed to reinstate her to her previous position or a comparable position and retaliated against her for taking maternity leave—both in violation of the Minnesota Parenting Leave Act (MPLA)—and that the company terminated her because of her sex—in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA). The district court granted summary judgment to RHI. The court of appeals affirmed, and Alexandra appealed to Minnesota’s Supreme Court.
What the court said. The supreme court affirmed. Although RHI had argued—and the district court held—that Alexandra was required to specifically invoke the MPLA when requesting leave, the supreme court disagreed. “…[T]he plain language of the MPLA does not require an employee to specifically refer to the Act when requesting a leave… Because… [Alexandra] clearly indicated childbirth as the reason for taking leave, she is entitled to the protections of the MPLA.”
Alexandra had argued that RHI agreed to extend her MPLA leave, and that by doing so, it also extended her right to reinstatement. However, the supreme court said her right to reinstatement was not extended. “… [A]n extension of MPLA leave does not extend the right to reinstatement.”
In addition, the court agreed that there was evidence that RHI had engaged in a bona fide reduction in force and that Alexandra failed to show that her pregnancy was a factor in the termination decision. The court also said the district court did not err in granting summary judgment to RHI on the retaliation claim. Hansen v. Robert Half International, Inc., Minnesota Supreme Court, No. A10-1558 (5/30/12).
Point to remember: A key issue for the court to decide was whether an employee must expressly request leave under the Minnesota Parenting Leave Act to invoke the protections of the Act. The supreme court explained that an employee must only state a qualifying reason for needing leave and that he or she does not have to refer specifically to the statute.