Employment-Sixth Circuit Defines Returning To Equivalent Position For FMLA Purposes

In Crawford v. JP Morgan Chase & Company, No. 12-3698 (6th Cir. 2013) (unpublished), the plaintiff, Paul Crawford (“Crawford”), was appealing the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of defendant, Chase Bank (“Chase”), on her Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) interference and retaliation claims.

In this case, from December 10, 2007 through February 19, 2008, Crawford took Chase approved FMLA leave to deal with her depression and stress. Shortly after her return, on March 16, 2008, Crawford’s job designation was changed from manager to analyst, and she was assigned to a position requiring a move to another city. Crawford brought this suit in March 2010, alleging, among other things, that Chase interfered with her rights under the FMLA and retaliated against her for using FMLA leave.

In analyzing the case, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) said, as to the FMLA interference claim, that the issue in this case is whether the employer denied Crawford FMLA benefits or interfered with FMLA benefits or rights to which she was entitled. Here, Crawford alleges such interference, as Chase transferred her to a non-equivalent position shortly after she returned from FMLA leave. On this issue, the regulations, at 29 C.F.R. ยง 825.215(a), state that “an equivalent position is one that is virtually identical to the employee’s former position in terms of pay, benefits, and working conditions, including privileges, perquisites and status.” Furthermore, under that regulation, “[i]t must involve the same or substantially similar duties and responsibilities, which must entail substantially equivalent skill, effort, responsibility, and authority.”

The Court said that here, viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Crawford, the analyst position involved more clerical duties and did not require the same level of legal expertise as the manager. Also, her opportunities for career advancement were diminished in her new position. Even if both positions carried equal pay and benefits, if the analyst position did not require a similar level of training and education, then it was not equivalent in terms of status and thus the positions would not be equivalent under the FMLA. Thus, the Court ruled that the district court’s grant of summary judgment against Crawford on the interference claim was an error.

As to the FMLA retaliation claim (specifically, the claim that Chase retaliated against Crawford by assigning her to a lesser position because she took FMLA leave), the Court said that the issues are whether: (1) the employer took an employment action adverse to the plaintiff and (2) there was a causal connection between the protected activity (the FMLA leave) and the adverse employment action. First, the Court said that an “adverse employment action” is an action which a reasonable employee would have found to be materially adverse. Here, the Court concluded that the assignment to a lesser position is such an action, so prong (1) is answered affirmatively. As to prong (2), Crawford relies, in part, on the proximity in time between her return from FMLA leave and her transfer. The close proximity between those two events answers prong (2) affirmatively. Moreover, Crawford raises an issue of fact regarding whether Chase’s proffered explanation for her termination was a pretext for retaliation. As such, the Court ruled that the district court’s summary judgment against Crawford on the retaliation claim was an error.

Given the above, the Court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Chase on Crawford’s FMLA interference and retaliation claims, and remanded the case back to the district court for further proceedings.