SJC Clarifies Leave Limit Under Mass. Maternity Leave Act

In an August 9, 2010 decision, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court clarified that job-restoration rights under the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (“MMLA”) do not extend beyond eight weeks. In Global NAPS, Inc. v. Awiszus (No. SJC-10586), the Court, by a 4–3 margin, held that “[o]nce 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.” The decision represents a victory for employers that are faced with an ever-increasing barrage of state and federal statutes and regulations designed to protect the rights of employees in the workplace.

The MMLA, which has been in existence since 1972, provides that a female employee – the statute does not cover male employees – who has completed her employer’s probationary period, or who has worked full time for the same employer for three consecutive months, is entitled to take up to eight weeks of leave for the birth or adoption of a child. As long as the employee gives her employer at least two-weeks’ notice of her anticipated date of departure and her intention to return to work, she must be restored to her previous or similar position with the same status, pay, length of service credit, and seniority. The maternity leave may be paid or unpaid at the employer’s discretion. Employers are free to provide maternity leave benefits greater than those required under the statute. An employee who believes her MMLA rights have been violated may file a charge with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”), the agency charged with enforcing the statute.

In late June 2000, Sandy Stephens informed her employer, Global NAPS, Inc., that she would begin her maternity leave on July 14. She was told that she could remain out of work until October 2. When Stephens telephoned Global on September 27 to confirm that she would be returning within the week, she was told her employment had been terminated. Stephens subsequently sued Global under the MMLA, alleging that Global failed to comply with the MCAD’s Maternity Leave Guidelines, which state in relevant part that “if the employer does not intend for full MMLA rights to apply to the period [of leave] beyond eight weeks, it must clearly so inform the employee in writing prior to the commencement of the leave.” After trial, the jury awarded Stephens more than $2 million in damages (this amount was later reduced to $1.3 million).

Following a series of complicated post-trial legal maneuvers, the case made its way to the SJC. A majority of the Court concluded that neither the MMLA, nor its regulations, require an employer to notify an employee taking more than eight weeks of leave whether MMLA rights will apply to the period of leave extending beyond eight weeks. The Court also concluded that to the extent the MCAD’s Maternity Leave Guidelines suggest that MMLA rights extend beyond the eight-week statutory limit, they are inconsistent with the statute and do not provide a basis for legal relief. The Court pointed out that an employee may have other rights that protect her from termination while on maternity leave, including breach of contract and detrimental reliance, but unless those claims are plead, the employee has no right to her job back after eight weeks under the MMLA.

An important caveat. The MMLA covers eligible female employees who work for a Massachusetts employer with at least six employees. Employees – both female and male – who work for employers with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius may be eligible for parental leave of up to twelve weeks under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. Parental leave under the FMLA runs concurrently with MMLA leave, not in addition to it.

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