A recent case decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit serves as a helpful reminder that an employee is not immune from performance-based discipline just because the employee has taken leave protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Earlier this month, in Schaaf v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. d/b/a GlaxoSmithKline, the Eleventh Circuit held that the demotion of a female vice president returning from maternity leave did not violate the FMLA because her demotion stemmed not from taking FMLA leave, but rather from performance issues which the employer learned about during her absence.

According to the Court’s written opinion, the plaintiff, Ellen Schaaf, worked for GlaxoSmithKline (“GSK”) as a Regional Vice President. In 2003, she took FMLA leave for the birth of her child. While on maternity leave, Schaaf’s subordinates reported to GSK’s management that Schaaf’s region was performing significantly better in her absence. Overall, productivity increased, communication improved, and morale was markedly higher as well.

Also according to the Court’s opinion, when Schaaf returned to work, GSK told her that she could accept a demotion to District Sales Manager – the position she held prior to her promotion to the position of Regional Vice President – or she could leave the company. Schaaf ultimately accepted the demotion. GSK explained that its decision was based on complaints from Schaaf’s subordinates regarding her aggressive management style and the fact that Schaaf’s region performed significantly better when she was out on leave. Schaaf sued GSK, alleging: (1) interference with her FMLA rights; and (2) a claim of retaliation for exercising her FMLA rights.

To state an FMLA interference claim, an individual need only allege that she was denied a benefit to which she was entitled under the statute. Schaaf claimed that her FMLA reinstatement rights were denied when GSK refused to reinstate her to the Regional Vice President position following her return from maternity leave. GSK contended that Schaaf was not returned to her position due to performance-related concerns. Schaaf countered by arguing that because GSK learned of the performance issues during her maternity leave, the leave, in effect, caused her demotion. In other words, but for Schaaf taking maternity leave, she would not have been demoted. The Court rejected that argument, explaining that Schaaf was demoted because of managerial ineffectiveness discovered while she was on FMLA leave, not because she took FMLA leave.

With respect to her retaliation claim, the Court found Schaaf could establish a prima facie case of retaliation based on the timing of the demotion, which occurred very shortly after the leave. However, GSK met its burden of proof by articulating a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action – namely Schaaf’s managerial ineffectiveness coupled with a noticeable improvement in performance from Schaaf’s region during her absence. Because Schaaf was unable to demonstrate that GSK’s stated reasons for her demotion were a pretext for discrimination, the Court dismissed Schaaf’s retaliation claim.

Schaaf serves as a reminder that an individual who has taken FMLA leave is not insulated from disciplinary action, or other performance-based decisions, simply because that individual has taken protected leave. Nevertheless, employers should be cautious and conservative when taking such actions. An adverse employment action following a protected leave will be suspect, and can enable the employee to establish a prima facie case based on timing alone. In particular, employers should not act without well-documented proof of the performance problems, and should not treat the FMLA-protected employee less favorably than a non-FMLA-using employee who exhibits similar performance problems.