All too often, employers are criticized for blunders they could have avoided when taking disciplinary action against an employee with a medical condition.  However, a recent federal appellate court decision provides a glowing example of how an employer got it right when it disciplined an employee upon her return from leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

Last month, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a drug company did not violate the FMLA when it demoted a top-level executive upon her return from maternity leave for performance deficiencies unrelated to her FMLA leave.  Schaaf v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. d/b/a GlaxoSmithKline.

The Facts

Plaintiff Ellen Schaaf served as a regional vice president for GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), and after several years in this position, Schaaf’s subordinates complained about her “antagonistic and inflexible” management style, poor communication skills, and other shortfalls.  After an investigation, GSK placed Schaaf on a performance improvement plan (PIP).  Months later, while she was out on protected FMLA maternity leave, further deficiencies were discovered and she was demoted upon her return.  Schaaf sued, claiming her FMLA leave was the employer’s reason for the demotion, rather than the employee complaints or her own work deficiencies.  She alleged that because GSK learned of her performance issues while she was on FMLA leave, her legally protected leave caused the demotion. In other words, according to Schaaf, but for the FMLA leave, GSK would have no reason to find out about her performance issues and demote her.

Court Ruling

The Court rejected this argument as “legally incorrect” and “logically unsound.” It reasoned that Schaaf’s reading of the FMLA would “effectively protect deficient employees from adverse employment actions, such that those workers could actually attain job security by seeking leave under the FMLA.” Such a result is “laughable,” according to the Court, which further found:

[The FMLA’s] purpose is not implicated in the least if an employee’s absence permits her employer to discover past professional transgressions that then lead to an adverse employment action against the employee. In such a situation, the employer is motivated not by the taking of the leave itself, but rather by prior deficiencies that, whenever they were discovered, would have prompted demotion or discharge whether or not the employee took FMLA leave.”

Insights for Employers

This decision is a clear win for employers.  Moreover, the case itself is a great example of an employer taking immediate action to discipline an employee for performance deficiencies, a response which was supported by a thorough investigation into the employee’s conduct, written documentation and use of a PIP. Here, GlaxoSmithKline was able to establish quite clearly that it would have issued discipline regardless of Schaaf’s maternity leave and her exercise of FMLA rights.  Employers should follow GSK’s lead in the manner they approach their own employees’ performance problems.