Change in Assignment May Be Insufficient to Establish FMLA Interference

Sara Sampra was working as an engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) in December 2013 when she was placed on bed rest by her physician as a result of pregnancy-related complications. After working from home for approximately two (2) weeks, Ms. Sampra began a continuous FMLA leave. While she was on the continuous FMLA leave, Ms. Sampra’s previous direct supervisor moved to a new position and, as a result, a new individual was assigned to be Ms. Sampra’s direct supervisor.

During the course of her FMLA leave, Ms. Sampra contacted her new direct supervisor by e-mail and informed him of her expected return to work date. In that same e-mail, Ms. Sampra expressed displeasure with not being able to work from home so she could care for her newborn while continuing to perform her job duties. Ms. Sampra’s direct supervisor informed her that she was not allowed to work from home in order to care for her child to which Ms. Sampra responded that she wished to work “on and off” as needed and would care for her child during the “off” times when she was not working. Ms. Sampra’s direct supervisor informed her there was no work to assign to her that would allow her to work from home and, in turn, Ms. Sampra returned to work in March 2014.

Upon returning to work, Ms. Sampra was assigned to work on a project at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. Ms. Sampra protested this assignment because the night hours required for the assignment would have created childcare issues for her. The FAA made modifications to the assignment such that Ms. Sampra would not have to work nights, but Ms. Sampra was still aggrieved by her new supervisor’s actions and she filed suit against the FAA. The main thrust of Ms. Sampra’s suit was that she had not been assigned field work during the four (4) plus years in which she had been employed by the FAA and, therefore, she believed the decision to assign field work to her upon her return from FMLA leave constituted unlawful interference with her FMLA rights as the FAA failed to restore her to an equivalent position with the same terms and conditions of employment to what she enjoyed prior to taking FMLA leave. The court disagreed.

After noting that Ms. Sampra herself described her job classification as a “Field Engineer,” the court went on to analyze Ms. Sampra’s contention that the decision to assign her to field work following the FMLA leave constituted a change in the terms and conditions of her employment. On this issue, the court found two (2) facts to be key. The first fact was that, although Ms. Sampra may not have been assigned field work previously, her job title and job description “continued to require up to 100% travel and field work.” The second fact was that Ms. Sampra’s direct supervisor changed while she was on FMLA leave and the new direct supervisor never allowed a field engineer under his supervision to perform mostly non-field work such as the duties Ms. Sampra has been assigned to perform by his predecessor. Because an employee returning from FMLA leave is entitled to “any right, benefit or position to which the employee would have been entitled had the employee not taken the leave,” Ms. Sampra’s interference claim failed as she was unable to establish that she failed to receive a benefit or position to which she would have been entitled had she not taken the leave. In other words, she was not entitled to perform the type of non-field work assigned to her by her previous supervisor because doing so would have resulted in Ms. Sampra being treated differently than other field engineers, all of whom were assigned to perform field work.

These types of FMLA interference claims (failure to restore the employee to the same or equivalent position) are highly fact-sensitive and in Ms. Sampra’s case the job title, job description, and change in direct supervisors all created issues that proved fatal to her claim. Had one or more of those facts been different, the result of her case may have been as well. Employees who experience material changes in their jobs following their return from a FMLA leave should speak with an experienced FMLA attorney in an effort to ascertain whether their rights may have been violated.