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The Court giveth, and the Court taketh away

Kim Hansen has just learned the hard way about the adage: “you can win the battle but lose the war.” She sued her former employer, Robert Half International, for violations of the Minnesota Parenting Leave Act, Minn. Stat. §§ 181.940-181.944. She won on the first question presented to the court, which held that an employee is only required to state a qualifying reason for leave under the Act to invoke its protections, and need not specifically refer to the Act itself. Unfortunately for Ms. Hansen, the court went on to find that RHI terminated her employment as the result of a bona fide reduction in force, and there was no evidence that her pregnancy was a factor in the termination decision. Thus, she lost the war.

RHI is an international staffing service; part of its business is placing legal professionals on temporary and permanent basis. Hansen was hired in 2004 as a staffing manager. In 2006, she requested a transfer to a different division after return from maternity leave for the birth of her first child. Hansen wanted the transfer so that she could work a reduced schedule and better manage her child’s daycare schedule. The transfer was approved, and Hansen was promoted to division director in January 2008. Unfortunately she underperformed in her new role, and was demoted to her previous role later that year.

Hansen gave birth to her second child at the end of August 2008 and started her leave of absence that same day. RHI sent her a letter confirming that her leave was short-term disability/FMLA. She returned to work on December 1, 2008.

Unfortunately, the economic downturn that began in 2008 dramatically impacted RHI’s business, and the company was required to lay-off employees. Hansen’s position was selected for elimination because her production numbers were consistently the lowest of all employees in the Minneapolis office and the Central Zone.

After her lay-off, Hansen sued RHI, alleging that it violated the Parenting Leave act by failing to reinstate her to her position or a comparable position after her maternity leave. After discovery, RHI moved for summary judgment, and the district court concluded that Hansen had no right to reinstatement because employees must request leave under the Act by name (which Hansen failed to do). The Court also found that Hansen was terminated as a result of a bona fide reduction in force, which eliminated her reinstatement rights under Minn. Stat. § 181.942, subd. 1(b). After the Court of Appeals affirmed, the Supreme Court took up the issue.

The first issue, then, was whether an employee must use “magic words”; i.e. whether she must expressly request leave under the Act by name. Relying on its plain language, the Supreme Court agreed with Hansen that no magic words are required; an employee need only inform her employer of the conditions necessitating the leave (e.g. birth or adoption, school conference, or illness or injury to a child) to claim its protections.

This was a short-lived victory for Hansen, however, as the Supreme Court then affirmed the District Court’s finding that her termination resulted from a RIF and was not related to her pregnancy or maternity leave. Relying on the familiar burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas v. Green, and its own holding in Dietrich v. Canadian Pacific that when an employee is discharged pursuant to a bona fide reduction in force she must make some “additional showing” that sex was a factor to establish a prima facie case, the Court concluded that Hansen offered no evidence from which a fact finder might reasonably conclude that RHI intentionally discriminated. Thus, her claim was properly dismissed.

So while employees need not invoke magic words to be protected, they better find some magic in increasing those production numbers before a RIF!

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