In the past month, Massachusetts employers have received some much-needed guidance and flexibility in interpreting and applying the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act ("MMLA"). Under the MMLA, a full-time female employee is entitled to job-protected maternity leave following the birth or adoption of a child for a period of time not exceeding eight weeks. In two recent decisions, the courts have explained that an employee is entitled only to eight weeks of leave, regardless of conflicting administrative guidelines issued by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ("MCAD"). For those employers with employees in Massachusetts, it is important to understand when an employee's leave is (and is not) protected by state law.

Twins, Triplets, or Quads … Maternity Leave Is Still Capped at Eight Weeks

On September 2, 2010, a Superior Court judge concluded that, regardless of the number of children the employee gives birth to, a female employee is entitled to no more than eight weeks of leave under the MMLA. The court specifically rejected a MCAD guideline that is posted on its website under "Hypothetical Questions and Answers," which suggests that, if a woman gives birth to twins, then she has given birth twice and, therefore, is entitled to 16 weeks of leave (twice the amount permitted by the statute).

In the case, an employee took 16 weeks of leave after giving birth to triplets. Thereafter, her employer asked her when she would be returning to work. When the employee responded that she did not want to return to work for another four to five months, the employer terminated her employment. The employee then sued her former employer alleging that, because she gave birth to triplets, she was entitled to 24 weeks of leave under the MMLA, instead of the eight weeks permitted by the statute.

The court, relying on a recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ("SJC") decision interpreting the MMLA, concluded that the MMLA is clear and unambiguous, and any inconsistent guidance from the MCAD is not persuasive authority and does not carry the force of law. Accordingly, the plain language of the statute provided that employees are entitled to eight weeks of job-protected leave, regardless of multiple births (or adoptions).

This is the first court ruling by a Massachusetts state court that interprets the MCAD guideline with respect to multiple births.

Maternity Leave Protection Cannot Be Extended by Agreement

In another case, on August 9, 2010, the SJC ruled that, even when a supervisor has approved an extended maternity leave beyond eight weeks, an employee does not have a claim for job restoration when she is terminated after the eight-week period has expired under the MMLA. In Global Naps, Inc. v. Awiszus, the SJC concluded that once an a employee is out on maternity leave beyond eight weeks, she is no longer protected by the MMLA. For the first time, the SJC clearly and unambiguously upheld the MMLA's statutory language and disregarded the MCAD administrative guidelines as lacking legal authority.

Action Items to Consider

These cases are among the first comprehensive guidance provided by the Massachusetts courts regarding the MCAD guidelines since they had been issued in 2000. In the guidelines, the MCAD imposed several obligations on employers that go beyond the strict protections provided by the MMLA. Therefore, in light of these two case decisions, employers should take the following actions:

  • Re-familiarize themselves with the MMLA, including how it interplays with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act;
  • Review their policies and practices on administering maternity leave to ensure that they are complying with the MMLA's specific requirements, such as timing and notice;
  • Recognize the limits on leave that the MMLA provides, and tell employees—both before they take leave and before their leave expires—when they are expected to return to work; and
  •  To the extent employers have provided additional leave to employees voluntarily or to employees giving birth to multiples, make sure that employees understand that the MMLA's job-protection rights are applicable only when the leave does not exceed eight weeks, despite contrary guidance from the MCAD (the MMLA, of course, does not prohibit an employer from establishing a policy that includes more liberal leave and job-restoration rights).