The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed that employees are entitled to no more than eight weeks of unpaid leave under the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA).
Employers who promise more than eight weeks of leave and subsequently terminate an employee may face actions for breach of contract, but cannot be sued for violating MMLA.
Lynda Slevoski, Vice President of the AIM Employer's Resource Group, said the decision underscores the need for employers to maintain consistent leave policies and to be cautious when making verbal representations to workers.
The 4-3 decision came in a malpractice lawsuit filed by a telecommunications company called Global NAPs, Inc. against its lawyers in connection with a $1.3 million award to a housekeeper who was fired after she took about 11 weeks of maternity leave.
Justice Francis X. Spina, writing for the majority, said:
“The language of the MMLA is clear and unambiguous. Female employees who satisfy certain preliminary conditions (not challenged here) are afforded rights under the MMLA when they are absent from employment 'for a period not exceeding eight weeks for the purpose of giving birth.'
“Once a female employee is absent from employment for more than eight weeks, she is no longer within the purview of the MMLA and, consequently, is not afforded the protections conferred by the statute.”
Justice Spina acknowledges that an employer may allow a female employee to be absent from work for more than eight weeks when giving birth to or adopting a child, typically through a bargaining agreement, company policy, or an oral representation from employer to employee.
“Where an employer provides such additional benefits to a female employee and subsequently takes an adverse employment action, the employee's recourse is the initiation of a common-law action for breach of contract, breach of oral representations, detrimental reliance, or the like.”
Employers governed by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) are not affected by the decision.