In Quigley v. Meritus Health, Inc., in the Federal District Court in Maryland, an employer successfully defeated an ex-employee’s claim for FMLA interference.
Plaintiff Margaret Quigley worked as an ultrasound technician at Meritus Medical Center (“the Hospital”).
The Hospital is a level-three trauma center and is required to have ultrasound coverage available on a 24/7 basis. From 2008 until December 2011, Ms. Quigley worked the weekend night shift exclusively. She was the only sonographer with such a permanent shift: all other sonographers rotated between day shifts, evening shifts, and those night shifts that Ms. Quigley did not work.
When Ms. Quigley was on FMLA leave in 2012, the Hospital changed her shift by implementing a universal rotating shift schedule, meaning that all sonographers — including Ms. Quigley — would rotate between day shifts, evening shifts, and night shifts. Although this change affected all sonographers, it most dramatically affected Ms. Quigley, who was the only technician not already on a rotating schedule.
Ms. Quigley learned of this change by May 24, 2012, while she was still on leave and shortly before she was to return to work on May 30, 2012. After learning of it, Ms. Quigley objected, and did not return to work. She was then separated from employment effective June 4, 2012.
The Court credited the explanation offered by the Hospital of how the universal rotating schedule was developed and implemented. The impetus for the schedule dated back at least to November 25, 2011, when the Hospital failed to secure night-shift ultrasound coverage after the plaintiff called out sick and did not come to work that evening. In response, defendant Sherry Mace, the manager of the imaging department, began contemplating a move to a universal rotating schedule, which in her view would make it easier to ensure coverage in case of last-minute call outs. She discussed this possibility with her superiors in December 2011.
By January 2012, Ms. Mace had decided to implement this change. After consulting with defendant Chris Bumbaugh, the director of human resources, about the proposed change in January 2012, Ms. Mace invited all sonographers to a meeting on February 2, 2012, to discuss the universal rotating schedule. The Hospital then implemented the new schedule in March 2012, while Ms. Quigley was on leave.
Ms. Quigley, who worked on February 2, 2012, but did not attend the meeting, was on FMLA leave from March 7, 2012, through May 28, 2012. She claimed she only learned of the change to a universal rotating schedule in May 2012, shortly before she was scheduled to return to work.
The Court’s Legal Analysis
The Court first cited the elements of establishing an FMLA interference claim:
An employee must prove that (1) she was an eligible employee; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to leave under the FMLA; (4) she gave her employer adequate notice of her intention to take leave; and (5) the employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled.
The Court noted that this case centered on the fifth prong and continued to cite relevant cases and regulations explaining and applying the law, which we paraphrase immediately below.
Upon return from FMLA leave, an employee is generally entitled to be restored to the same position held when the leave commenced or its equivalent. With respect to work schedules in particular, an employee is ordinarily entitled to return to the same shift or the same or an equivalent work schedule.
On the other hand, the right to restoration is not absolute. A returning employee has no greater right to reinstatement or to other benefits and conditions of employment than if the employee had been continuously employed during the FMLA leave period.
Accordingly, an employer may deny restoration to a previous position or its equivalent for legitimate business reasons that are unrelated to the exercise of FMLA rights.
FMLA claims concerning restoration to the same or an equivalent position often fail if the evidence tends to show that the employer made the employment decision prior to the request for FMLA leave, especially when coupled with other evidence supporting the proffered reason for the decision. In addition, an employment decision may be legitimate — and thus preclude FMLA liability — even if it affects only one employee, and it is more likely to be legitimate if the employee had been restored to the same position after taking FMLA leave on several prior occasions.
The Court’s Decision
The Court held that, even assuming Ms. Quigley was not offered the same position or its equivalent upon her expected return from FMLA leave in May 2012, the evidence showed the Hospital had legitimate business reasons for moving all technicians to a rotating shift schedule. The evidence also showed the Hospital had decided to put all technicians on a rotating schedule at least by the end of January 2012 — before Ms. Quigley notified the Hospital she would take FMLA leave to recover from foot surgery. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Ms. Quigley would have been required to join all other technicians on a rotating schedule even if she had not taken FMLA leave in March, April, and May 2012.
Although the new schedule most dramatically affected Ms. Quigley, it affected all technicians to some degree and, in any event, legitimate business decisions may affect only one employee. The evidence thus demonstrated that no FMLA violation occurred. That conclusion was bolstered by the fact that the Hospital granted Ms. Quigley FMLA leave every time she requested it and had restored her to a permanent night shift after previous absences.
Ms. Quigley, by contrast, offered no credible evidence rebutting the assertion that a universal rotating schedule served a legitimate business need, because it would help the Hospital secure coverage in case of last-minute call outs and also, as Ms. Mace testified, ensure that all sonographers were familiar with the particular demands of the night shift. She also was unable to show that the Hospital had not, in fact, decided to implement a universal rotating schedule by January 2012. Although the new schedule affected her more dramatically than other technicians and was implemented while she was on leave, that was not enough to establish an FMLA interference claim.
Accordingly, the Court concluded the defendants were not liable, because moving to a universal rotating schedule was a legitimate business decision that would have occurred even if Ms. Quigley had not taken FMLA leave.