On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County.
Bilder, Baime and Wallace. The opinion of the court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
This appeal presents novel questions under the Family Leave Act (N.J.S.A. 34:11B-1 through -16). The Act guarantees the right of an employee to take a period of leave upon the birth of a child or other family emergency without incurring the risk of losing his or her employment. Upon the expiration of the leave, the employee is entitled to be restored to his or her former job or to an equivalent position.
Pregnant with her second child, plaintiff Celeste D'Alia apprised her employer Allied-Signal Corporation of her intent to take disability and maternity leave under the company's health insurance plan. She claims that she was demoted when she attempted to return to her position following her recuperation from a cesarean section. Plaintiff instituted this action to recover compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorney's fees under the Act. Although discovery had not yet been completed, the Law Division granted defendant's motion for
summary judgment. The court determined that plaintiff's request for disability entitlements and maternity leave did not constitute adequate notice of an intention to invoke her rights under the Act. Alternatively, the court found as a matter of law that plaintiff was offered an equivalent position. We reverse.
Because this case was decided in summary fashion, the record before us is somewhat meager. Plaintiff commenced her employment with defendant on a temporary basis while attending college. After her graduation in 1981, she was hired as a full-time employee. Plaintiff initially held the position of Coordinator of the Personnel Resource Data Center at a salary of $14,500. In 1984, she obtained a lateral transfer to the position of Specialist -- Stock Options at a grade 6 compensation level. Plaintiff continued in that position until 1986, when she was promoted to the position of Supervisor -- Stock Options. Her compensation increased commensurately to a grade 8 level. After plaintiff's first pregnancy, she returned to her position and shortly thereafter was promoted to a salary grade 10 position based upon her assumption of additional duties involving defendant's Section 401(K) savings plan. At that point, her job title became Supervisor -- Special Compensation and her salary increased to $43,600.
Effective February 1, 1990, plaintiff formally assumed supervisory responsibility for administering executive compensation. The former supervisor had been promoted and was about to be reassigned to another office. This organizational change was discussed with plaintiff in late December 1989 and was formally announced in two directives issued on January 9, 1990. In her new role, plaintiff had supervisory responsibility over two additional employees. According to plaintiff's deposition testimony, she was promised that she would be promoted to a salary grade 11 as soon as her predecessor assumed her new assignment.
Although the evidence is conflicting, plaintiff claims she was told that her salary would be increased and that it "was just a matter of paperwork."
At that point, plaintiff suffered complications in her pregnancy and requested a maternity leave of absence on May 16, 1990. Based on a disability certification by plaintiff's doctor, defendant anticipated that this leave would continue through September 1990. In addition to signing the company's health insurance disability form, plaintiff engaged in several conversations with her immediate supervisor. These Discussions apparently concerned the manner in which other employees would assume plaintiff's responsibilities in her absence. In particular, it was agreed that administrative responsibility for executive compensation would be temporarily assigned to an employee then under plaintiff's supervision. Plaintiff fully expected that this "highly visible" and important function would be returned to her following expiration of her leave.
On July 12, 1990, however, plaintiff, who was still convalescing, was told that her former male subordinate would retain the responsibility for executive compensation upon her return. Plaintiff objected to the reassignment of her supervisory responsibilities and alleged that she was the victim of discrimination. In a series of letters, defendant's Director of Human Resources asserted that the staffing change was made out of business necessity and had nothing to do with plaintiff's pregnancy. He further noted that the company intended to reinstate plaintiff to a position having the same grade and salary as her former job. Defendant later offered plaintiff a choice of two positions: Supervisor -- Corporate Payroll or Supervisor -- Special Compensation. Both positions carried the same salary grade level 10, but did not include executive compensation duties and supervisory responsibilities over the same number of employees as ...