Supreme Judicial Court Interprets Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA)

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in an August decision in Global Naps, Inc. v. Awiszusdecided that a female employee who was absent from work for more than eight weeks was not entitled to the protections of the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (MMLA).  Although this story has been widely reported in the media, the purpose of this post is to comment upon the wider implications of the court’s ruling.

The employee, Sandy Stephens, was employed as a housekeeper for the president of Global Naps, Inc. (“Global”), a telecommunications company.  Stephens alleged in her lawsuit that her supervisor had agreed that she could extend her maternity leave past the eight weeks provided by the MMLA, if she gave birth by cesarean section.  She claims that she informed her employer that she gave birth by cesarean section, but when she called weeks later in anticipation of returning to her job, she learned she had been fired. She brought a lawsuit in Superior Court against Global and its president.  The jury returned verdicts against Global for compensatory damages exceeding $1.3 million dollars and punitive damages in the amount of $1 million dollars.  It returned a verdict against the company president for aiding and abetting the company, in the amount of $136,000.  The Supreme Judicial Court, the Commonwealth’s highest court, considered whether Global could have prevailed on an appeal of the verdicts if its attorneys had filed an appeal in a timely manner.  The Court therefore took up the question of whether Stephens was entitled to the protections of the MMLA where she had been absent from work for longer than eight weeks.  In deciding that Stephens was not entitled to the protections of the MMLA, the Court stated: “Once a female employee is absent from employment for more than eight weeks, she is no longer within the purview of the MMLA, and consequently, is not afforded the protections conferred by the statute.”

The Court recognized that employers for a variety of reasons may allow an employee to be absent from work for more than the eight weeks provided by the MMLA.  However, if an employee such as Stephens believes that the employer has reneged on a promise, the remedy is a breach of contract action or other lawsuit based on the common law, rather than a lawsuit based on a violation of the MMLA.  In the course of its decision, the Court stated that to the extent the guidelines promulgated by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) suggest that female employees may be entitled to rights beyond the eight weeks, the MCAD guidelines are inconsistent with the law.

What are some of the issues to keep in mind when considering this decision and the underlying jury verdict?  Here are some thoughts.

  1. As the Court stated in its decision, a female employee whose maternity leave has been extended past the eight weeks may have rights (other than those under the MMLA) that protect her from unlawful termination. For instance, under certain circumstances, her employer may have a duty to accommodate her with additional leave under disability laws.
  2. Keep in mind that employers with fifty or more employees are subject to the Family Medical Leave Act, a federal law which provides up to twelve weeks a year of unpaid leave to eligible employees after the birth, adoption or foster placement of a child.  The Court’s opinion related solely to the Massachusetts statute.
  3. The jury in the Stephens case conveyed their disapproval of the company’s actions with a $1 million dollar punitive damages award, not to mention the compensatory damage award.  While the Court stated in its opinion that the trial judge should have ruled in the employer’s favor and not sent the case to the jury, the amount of the award in a pregnancy-related case should not be overlooked by employers.
  4. The Court’s discussion in its opinion as to the MCAD’s guidelines on the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act may have wider implications than this case.  The Court stated that the guidelines represent the MCAD’s interpretation of the MMLA, and “although they are entitled to substantial deference, they do not carry the force of law.”  Although the MCAD will want to afford whatever protection it legally can to employees under the statute, the agency will likely be restricted in enforcement efforts that go beyond the requirements of the MMLA.
  5. The outcome of the case certainly suggests that where an employer agrees to extend the eight weeks of maternity leave, it would be in the best interest of both employer and employee to have the agreement in writing.  This will avoid a breach of contract action against the employer and clarify the employee’s standing in order to avoid a surprise termination.