If an employee claims her employer interfered with her rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), but she didn’t lose any salary or benefits, can she win her case? In Evans v. Books-A-Million,the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals says maybe.

Tondalaya Evans, Books-A-Million’s Payroll and Insurance Manager, was to begin her maternity leave in September 2006. As her due date approached, however, the new payroll system implementation on which Evans was working was delayed, so much of the work would occur during her leave. According to the opinion, Evans’s supervisor, Sandi Meeks, said “they” had decided she “would not go on leave, but would work while on maternity leave” and, by the way, 50% of her annual bonus was riding on the successful implementation of the new system. Evans agreed to work from home while on leave and get paid her full salary.

And work she did. Evans worked nearly full time during her leave (starting the day she got home from the hospital), sometimes more than 8 hours a day.  She even went to the office for some meetings.

According to Evans, after she returned from leave, Meeks was cold and hostile. A few months later, Books-A-Million reassigned Evans to a Risk Manager position that she didn’t want. When Evans asked why, Meeks said it was because she wasn’t pleased with the payroll system implementation (which Evans managed during her leave). When Evans refused the reassignment, she was terminated.

Evan sued for a raft of claims, including that Books-A-Million interfered with her FMLA rights by requiring her to work during her leave and reassigning her afterwards. Books-A-Million moved for summary judgment on the grounds that because it paid Evans throughout her leave she could not prove that she had been damaged. The district court agreed, but the Eleventh Circuit did not.

To prove an FMLA interference claim, a plaintiff must show that (1) she was denied a benefit to which she was entitled under the FMLA and (2) the denial prejudiced her in some way. The Eleventh Circuit found that a plaintiff does not have to prove loss of compensation, benefits, or other monetary loss to show prejudice; she only needs to demonstrate some harm that can be remedied by equitable relief.

“It seems plain to us that if an employer coerces an employee to work during her intended FMLA leave period and, subsequently, reassigns her based upon her allegedly poor performance during that period, the employee may well have been harmed by the employer’s FMLA violation.”

Under the Eleventh Circuit’s reasoning, if Evans can convince a jury that (1) her reassignment was based on her job performance while she was supposed to be on leave and (2) the reassignment was to an inferior position—even if it was at the same salary—she could prevail. According to the Eleventh Circuit, her remedy could be reinstatement or front pay.

The court had to view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff in this case—so there could be a lot out there we don’t know. With that caveat, there are at least two takeaways from this case:

  1. Asking an employee to work during his or her FMLA leave is risky. According to the Eleventh Circuit, requiring someone to work from home while on FMLA leave is, by definition, interference with the employee’s FMLA rights, even if the leave is paid.
  2. Think long and hard before you change an employee’s job after FMLA leave based on poor work performance during her FMLA leave.

The best practice is to not ask an employee to work during FMLA leave.