The Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) requires employers to provide eligible employees with up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn child (among other reasons), and to offer reinstatement to the employee following her leave.  The FMLA also makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with an employee’s attempt to exercise her FMLA rights.

But suppose an employer persuades an eligible employee not to take FMLA leave because she is needed at work.  This, too, can result in liability under the FMLA, as illustrated by a recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Evans v. Books-A-Million, Case No. 13-10054 9 (11th Cir., August 8, 2014).

Tondalaya Evans was employed by Books-A-Million as Payroll and Insurance Manager.  Evans became pregnant and advised Books-A-Million that she wanted to take FMLA leave. But Evans was involved in the implementation of a new ADP payroll system, and her supervisor, Sandi Meeks, repeatedly told Evans that she “really needed” Evans to continue to work on the new system.  Evans felt she had no choice but to continue to work from home after the birth of her child, and she did so, but Meeks became frustrated with Evans’ lack of progress.  Shortly after Evans returned to work, she was told that she was being reassigned to the newly-created position of Risk Manager because Meeks wasn’t pleased with the ADP implementation.  Evans declined the Risk Manager position, for which she had no experience and which required travel, and Books-A-Million terminated her employment.  Evans sued under the FMLA.  The district court granted Books-A-Million’s motion for summary judgment, reasoning that, even if Books-A-Million interfered with Evans’ FMLA rights, she could not state an FMLA claim, because she had been paid during the time she would have been on FMLA leave and therefore suffered no loss of income from the interference.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reinstated Evans’ FMLA claim.  Citing the Supreme Court’s decision in Ragsdale v. Wolverine World Wide, Inc., 535 U.S. 81, 89 (2002), the court noted that an FMLA plaintiff can prevail by proving that her employer interfered with the exercise of her FMLA rights “and that she was prejudiced thereby.”  Such prejudice, the Eleventh Circuit noted, need not take the form of monetary damages. “It seems plain to us[,]” the court wrote, “that if an employer coerces an employee to work during her intended FMLA leave period and, subsequently, reassigns her based upon her allegedly poor performance during that period, the employee may well have been harmed by the employer’s FMLA violation.”  In addition, the court noted, “[a] reasonable fact finder could conclude that Evans’ reassignment constituted an unlawful act of interference with her FMLA right to be reinstated to her former position.”

The Evans case illustrates that interference under the FMLA can take different forms; it can even take place with the employee’s consent.  Employers would be well advised not to pressure employees to forego their FMLA rights, even if they are “really needed” at work.  An employee’s right to FMLA leave trumps the employer’s business needs.