In March 2002, six plaintiffs brought suit against Motorola and several individual defendants alleging that the defendants violated the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) by discriminating and retaliating against them for taking FMLA leave. One plaintiff, James Breneisen, (“James”) also alleged that he was denied his FMLA right to reinstatement upon his return from medical leave. The district court granted summary judgment for the defendants on all claims and the plaintiffs appealed. (Breneisen, et al. v. Motorola, Inc., et al., No. 05-2032, 7th Cir., January 15, 2008).
James began working in Motorola’s Rockford, Illinois facility in 1999. By February of 2000, James was given the title of Process Analyst to match his job responsibilities. In January 2001, James went on an FMLA leave to receive treatment for gastro-esophageal reflux. He had previously taken leave about one dozen times without incident. However, in April 2001, when James retuned from leave, he was told to work on the key pad line, which was a production line position. Shortly after taking the key pad position, he left for esophageal surgery and did not return to work until September 2001.
Upon his return, James was informed that his Process Analyst position had been phased out because of business needs and that he would have to work in the key pad position because there were no other available positions. He was given the title of Technician Assistant and his pay and benefits were not affected. In the suit, James contends that Motorola violated his rights under the FMLA by failing to reinstate him to the Process Analyst position or its equivalent when he returned from FMLA leave. Motorola countered that the positions were equivalent. The appeals court disagreed.
The court noted that the test for equivalence is strict. Jobs are only “equivalent” within the meaning of the FMLA, if they entail “equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.” The jobs “must involve the same or substantially similar duties and responsibilities.” The court noted that even though James received the same pay and benefits, the jobs differed in many respects. While the Process Analyst job involved administrative functions of tracking shipments and filing claims, the key pad position involved manual tasks, such as lifting boxes and pressing key on telephone pads.
The court noted that the FMLA does not give employees an unconditional right to reinstatement. Therefore, if an employee’s position is eliminated for reasons unrelated to the leave, he has no right to reinstatement. However, because Motorola appears to have simply replaced James or restructured his position to accommodate his absence, he is entitled to reinstatement.