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MN Supreme Court Declares that Employees Need Not Specifically Reference the Minnesota Parenting Leave Act when They Seek the Protections provided by It

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Employees are only required to identify a qualifying reason for leave under the Minnesota Parenting Leave Act (“MPLA”).  Extending MPLA leave does not automatically extend an Employee’s right to Reinstatement.

In a case released last week by the MN Supreme Court, the court held that an employee is not required to specifically refer to the MPLA when requesting leave.  It is sufficient that the employee requests leave for one of the reasons specified in it.

The MN Supreme Court also held that extension of leave does not automatically extend the employee’s right to reinstatement to the same or equivalent position.

Plaintiff Kim Hansen (“Hansen”) began working for Robert Half International, Inc.’s Minneapolis office (“RHI”) in 2004.  She became pregnant with her second child in January 2008, and informed RHI the next month.

Hansen gave birth on August 29, 2008, and her leave of absence began on the same day.  When she completed her leave of absence form, Hansen selected a “Section A” type leave.  Section A leave includes:  (1) short-term medical disability; (2) pregnancy-related disability; or (3) workers’ compensation disability.  Hansen filled in the line entitled “pregnancy-related disability” along with her delivery date.

RHI sent Hansen a letter on September 11, 2008 that confirmed her short-term disability/FMLA leave, along with a copy of the leave of absence manual.  The letter notified Hansen that she was eligible for up to 12 weeks of short-term disability/FMLA leave in a 12 month period.  She was also told that she could request an additional 4 weeks of personal leave after her short-term disability/FMLA leave expired.  However, Hansen was informed that she had no guarantee of reinstatement when her personal leave ended.  Specifically, RHI’s leave of absence manual states:

Upon completion of an approved leave of absence an employee will be reinstated to the employee’s former position or a position that is substantially similar to the employee’s former position without reduction in pay, benefits or service.

But reinstatement is not available if the position or substantially similar position ceases to exist because of legitimate business reasons unrelated to the employee’s leave.

Hansen returned to work on December 1, 2008.  However, the economic downturn that began in September 2008 had severely affected RHI’s business as sales had decreased dramatically between August and December 2008.  Prior to her leave, Hansen had consistently been among the lowest performing employees.  Therefore, as part of the company-wide reduction, she was terminated on December 2, 2008.

Hansen sued RHI claiming that:  (1) RHI violated the MPLA by failing to reinstate her to her position or a comparable position after her maternity leave; (2) RHI violated the MPLA by retaliating against her for taking maternity leave; and (3) RHI violated the MHRA for terminating her because of her sex.

The lower court dismissed Hansen’s claims and ruled that she had no right to reinstatement because the MPLA requires employees to specifically reference it when taking leave, and she had not done so.  The court also found that Hansen’s position had been eliminated because of bona fide reduction in force, and that she was not entitled to reinstatement as a matter of law.  The court of appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The MN Supreme reversed, and held that because the plain language of the MPLA does not require an employee to specifically refer to it when requesting leave, an employee need not do so in order to obtain the benefits provided by the MPLA.  However, there is also no language in the MPLA suggesting that an extension of leave also extends the right to reinstatement.  In fact, as noted above, RHI’s manual clearly states that an employee is not entitled to reinstatement in the event of legitimate business reason unrelated to the employee’s leave.

Takeaway:  As long as an employee seeks leave for a MPLA qualifying reason, they do not need to specifically reference the MPLA when they request the leave.  Employers should also be careful to fully inform employees of their rights to reinstatement (or lack thereof) after returning from an approved leave.

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