James Breneisen worked for Motorola between 1994 and 2003. In 1999, he began working in Motorola’s Factory Express Program (“FEP”) where he received merchandise for the program. His responsibilities grew as he showed aptitude in the job. It grew so much that Motorola considered him for a salaried position. Before he could progress further in the company, on January 15, 2001, he sought treatment for gastro-esophageal reflux and took leave from his job.
He did not return to work until April 2001. When he did, he was told to work on the keypad line. This was a production line position and it required James to lift heavy boxes and manually press buttons on phone keypads to ensure the phones properly functioned. Motorola claims that James was placed in this job because his prior job was eliminated and his duties distributed to other employees. James was in the keypad position for 8 days before leaving for surgery.
James returned to work in September 2001. At this point, James had exhausted his FMLA leave for the year. Motorola placed him in the keypad position again with same pay and benefits as his FEP postion. James stayed in the position until he applied for and received another position as a Contract Coordinator. All was fine in this position except his supervisor, Darlene Patterson, made life hell for James by claiming that James was creating a hostile work environment. This aggravated James’ health problems to the point that he began another leave for a total esophagectomy. Motorola terminated James in June 2003.
The FMLA requires that an employee be reinstated to his former position or an equivalent one upon returning from leave. The two positions in question did not even involve the same duties: “While the Process Analyst job involved the administrative functions of tracking shipments, filing claims, and developing shipping solutions, the keypad position involved manual tasks, such as lifting boxes and pressing keys on telephone keypads. Both Johnson and Shaw acknowledged that the jobs involved different responsibilities, and Shaw admitted that the new position had less prestige and visibility. James believed his new position to be a demotion, and Amber White, a colleague, shared his view.”
Of course, Motorola claimed that James’ former position had been eliminated. Under the FMLA, if an employee’s position is eliminated while he is on FMLA leave for reasons unrelated to the taking of leave, he has no right to reinstatement. When an employer claims that the employee’s position would have been eliminated even if the employee had not taken leave and provides some evidence to that effect, the employee must convince the trier of fact that his position would not have been eliminated had he not taken leave.
The court found it odd that James was being considered for a salaried position immediately before taking leave and that his responsibilities were increased. This showed that James was performing vital and indispensable functions, yet upon taking leave, Motorola parsed his job duties out to several other employees. The court relied on the testimony of two other employees for its finding that Motorola had no business justification for, in essence, demoting James:
“Specifically, when Johnson was asked whether James’s job had been eliminated or was no longer in existence, Johnson said: ‘It was dissolved. It was something that had been broken up into many different people which is a practice of Motorola to absorb responsibilities from when a person leaves.’ Shaw concurred that James was probably not returned to the Process Analyst position, because ‘most likely that … job either didn’t exist anymore or we split the duties up amongst other people. I mean, in our service business it’s hard to hold positions open when we’ve got to take care of customers every day. So we found a way of working through it.'”
Breneisen v. Motorola. Inc., — F.3d —-, 2008 WL 126034 (C.A.7 (Ill.)), 13 Wage & Hour Cas.2d (BNA) 257