Court Finds New Position Was Equivalent To Pre-Leave Job
The federal appellate court with jurisdiction over South Carolina recently dismissed a lawsuit brought by an employee who was reassigned to a new position after returning from medical leave. According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, the employee’s claim under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) failed because his new position differed from his pre-leave job in only its intangible aspects. This is a positive ruling for South Carolina employers as it provides guidance on what constitutes an “equivalent job” under the FMLA. Csicsmann v. Sallada, No. 05-2087, Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (December 12, 2006).
Carlos Csicsmann was employed by American Management Systems (AMS) as the Server Group Manager in the Information Technology Server Group. His supervisor was Carl Warner, who in turn reported to the Vice President of Information Technology, Don Hirsch.
In December of 2003, Csicsmann took an FMLA-protected leave of absence to undergo hip surgery. While he was on leave, Csicsmann’s position was eliminated and he was reassigned to the Disaster Recovery Project. Csicsmann’s supervisors claimed that they designed the position to suit his skill set and that they assigned him the high-level responsibility of developing a disaster recovery plan and processes for recovering corporate IT infrastructure in the event of a disaster. While Csicsmann’s job responsibilities changed, his salary, title, bonus eligibility, health care, and retirement benefits remained the same.
On March 4, 2004, Csicmann informed his supervisors and the HR department that he was experiencing significant pain in his hip and inquired about adjusting his work schedule and taking long-term disability. The HR department provided Csicsmann with an application for long-term disability status (which he never submitted).
On March 10, 2004, AMS announced its impending merger with CGI Group. On May 5, 2004, Csicsmann’s position was among the 10 percent of the IT positions selected for termination. By the end of 2004, all of the duties previously handled by the IT department were transferred to CGI facilities in Toronto and all of the Server Group positions at AMS were eliminated.
Csicsmann filed a lawsuit alleging that AMS had retaliated and discriminated against him for taking FMLA leave. Csicsmann argued that his new position was not equivalent to his old one and that the new assignment constituted an adverse employment action. The trial judge rejected Csicsmann’s suit and he appealed this ruling to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
The FMLA requires that employees who take qualifying leave be restored to their pre-leave job or an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment. In Csicsmann’s case, the Fourth Circuit found that his salary, title, bonus eligibility, health care, work schedule, work location, and retirement benefits all remained unchanged. Csicsmann, however, argued that the new position was less prestigious and less visible than his previous role. The court found that these are “intangible aspects” of the job and that the “concrete and measurable aspects” of Csicsmann’s new position were the same. Thus, the court concluded that AMS restored Csicsmann to an equivalent position.
Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit held that Csicsmann’s reassignment to a new position did not constitute an adverse employment action. According to the court, the terms and conditions of Csicsmann’s employment remained the same and Csicsmann failed to show that he suffered any material harm. Thus, the court rejected his FMLA retaliation claim as well.
According to Kristofer Strasser, a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ Greenville office: “The holding in Csicsmann presents a common sense and legally sound drawing of the line on what constitutes an `equivalent job’ under the FMLA. We have long advised that the safest strategy is for `equivalent’ to mean the `same’ job. There are times, however, when that result is not possible. The employer should then do its best to make sure the measurable aspects of the job – salary, benefits, location, schedule, etc. – are the same in the new job. Interestingly, the court noted only in a passing footnote that the employer here did not even have to create a new job. Just because the employee is on FMLA leave, he is not entitled to be restored if his job is eliminated. In this case, however, because the employer did bring the employee back – and perhaps because it moved others whose jobs were eliminated – it accepted the obligation to put him in an equivalent position. The new position was equivalent because the measurable
aspects of the job were the same.”
Note: This article was published in the Dec/Jan 2007 issue of the South Carolina eAuthority.