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Laid Off for Using Family Leave

January 4, 2011: Sometimes a seemingly small instance of discrimination against an employee can set off a chain of events culminating in that employee’s eventual termination. This is what happened to Mary Kate Breeden. Ms. Breeden took parental leave when her daughter was born, which she was legally entitled to under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). After she returned, her employer reassigned her to a much smaller sales territory. She continued to perform well, but could never bring in the same volume of sales as she had done previously due to her reduced client base. Two years later, Ms. Breeden was terminated when the company had to trim the sales force and merged her territory with another. Although a jury found that the employer had terminated Ms. Breeden in retaliation for her taking FMLA leave, the judge overturned the jury’s verdict, finding a lack of legal connection between the smaller territory and the firing.

On January 4, 2011, the Public Justice Center, National Partnership for Women and Families, and Equal Rights Advocates filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Breeden v. Novartis Pharms. Corp. in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, urging the court to adopt a real-world approach to the question of causation. The brief explained how an unrequested reduction in an employee’s workload ultimately makes that employee far less valuable to the employer and thus at greater risk of termination. In addition, the brief emphasized the increased importance of vigilant enforcement of the FMLA given the growing number of people juggling work and care-giving obligations. Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Jessica Weber authored the brief.

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