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Damages in pregnant worker's FMLA ruling scrutinized

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A federal appeals court has reaffirmed a lower court’s ruling in favor of a caretaker who charged her former employer with Family Medical Leave Act violations, but says a jury should have been given the opportunity to consider the damages to be awarded.

Ena Wages, who worked as a caretaker for Minneapolis-based property management firm Stuart Management Corp., had requested she limit her work week to no more than 20 hours of work because of an ectopic pregnancy, according to Monday’s ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis in Ena J. Wages v. Stuart Management Corp. d/b/a StuartCo. She had earlier requested redistribution of some of her duties because of her pregnancy.

She was terminated after she missed three days of work, according to the ruling. Ms. Wages filed suit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, charging violation of her rights under the FMLA, among other charges.

In a summary judgment ruling, the court awarded Ms. Wages more than $161,290 in back pay, prejudgment interest on back pay and liquidated damages, plus post-judgment interest.

StuartCo appealed the rulings. The three-judge appeals court panel unanimously held that Ms. Wages was an eligible employee as defined by the FMLA and that she had properly informed the company of her need for leave. It also upheld her retaliation charge.

The company’s “decision to fire Wages was directly connected to her request for a reduction in hours, which is protected under the FMLA,” said the ruling. “The FMLA is designed specifically for situations like this where a low-wage employee, such as Wages, needs temporary protection.”

However, added the court, “There are factual disputes that should have prevented the District Court from determining damages,” including whether StuartCo acted in bad faith, said the panel in remanding the case for a jury trial on damages.