The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled, in a recent 4-to-3 decision, that women in Massachusetts who work full time for small businesses have their jobs protected during eight weeks of maternity leave, but the law does not protect them beyond that time.
Women who are promised longer maternity leaves by their employers, usually through company policies or union agreements, can sue for breach of contract if their employer later breaches the policy or agreement and fires them.
Sandy Stephens, a housekeeper for the president of Global NAPs Inc., a small Quincy, MA telecommunications firm, claimed her supervisor told her that, if she gave birth by cesarean section, she could take unpaid maternity leave longer than eight weeks. Stephens ultimately gave birth by cesarean section and claimed that, when she called her supervisor after the eight week period and said she anticipated returning to work after around 11 weeks, she learned she had been fired by her employer.
Stephens’ lawsuit relied on a guideline of the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination that says employers should notify employees in writing if they do not plan to guarantee benefits beyond eight weeks. The SJC found, however, that the guideline is advisory only and does not have the force of law.
- The decision affirmed how the law has generally been applied
- The ruling is limited to women whose maternity leave falls under state law (typically those who work at smaller companies but with at least six employees).
- Women who work for employers with 50 or more employees are covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, which provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and job protection. The SJC ruling does not affect the federal law.
- Employees should obtain all promises in writing with respect to benefits promised beyond what the law provides.
- Communicate with your employer during any leave to avoid misunderstandings.
A long and winding road to the decision. The issue under the MMLA arose in the context of a legal malpractice claim against the employer’s former lawyers.
Initially, a jury returned a verdict for Stephens against the Global NAPs for $1.36 million in compensatory damages.
Global NAPs sued its lawyers for allegedly not filing a notice of appeal in a timely manner. Global NAPS hired appellate counsel and advised trial counsel that the appeal would be handled by new counsel. A notice of appeal was not timely filed – apparently due to confusion over who would file the appeal and whether various post-trial motions and rulings had tolled the 30 day limitation for filing. In the suit against the lawyers, the Superior Court granted summary judgment to the defendant lawyers, and Global NAPS appealed the dismissal.
On appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court, the Court held that Global NAPs’ malpractice claims should not have been dismissed because Global NAPs would have prevailed in the Stephens litigation had the lawyers filed a timely appeal. The Court explained that the statute makes clear that its protections are limited to eight weeks only. Because Stephens had pursued only a claim under the MMLA, an appeal of the jury verdict would have been successful. The Court concluded that the lawyers’ failure to file a timely appeal constituted professional negligence as a matter of law.
The SJC sent the case back to Suffolk Superior Court so a judge can decide how much Global NAPs lost because of the error and what percentage of the loss each law firm should pay. The firms were Jackson Lewis LLP and Winokur, Serkey & Rosenberg, P.C.
Please note that this does not constitute legal advice. If you have a question about this or any other business law or employment matter, call or email The Brown Law Firm, LLC, a Massachusetts firm dedicated to business and employment law.