On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Middlesex County, Docket No. L-2617-07.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Koblitz, J.S.C.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Payne, Baxter and Koblitz.
The opinion of the court was delivered by KOBLITZ, J.S.C. (temporarily assigned).
Plaintiff Sara Lapidoth appeals the October 7, 2009 order denying her summary judgment motion and granting defendant Telcordia Technologies, Inc.'s (Telcordia) summary judgment motion in her action for breach of contract and interference with rights under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 2612 to 2654, and the New Jersey Family Leave Act (NJFLA), N.J.S.A. 34:11B-1 to -16. Lapidoth's claims stem from her termination when she sought to return from a pre-approved year-long maternity leave. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we reverse the grant of summary judgment to defendant on the contract claim and affirm the remainder of the trial court's order. We agree with the trial court that Lapidoth's leave was neither covered by the FMLA nor the NJFLA as it exceeded twelve weeks. We conclude, however, that a reasonable employee could interpret the two letters Telecordia sent Lapidoth authorizing her leave as a promise of reinstatement.
On June 16, 1986, plaintiff began full-time employment with defendant's predecessor company, Bell Communications Research (Bell). At her request, in 1991, plaintiff began working part-time.
In the beginning of 2005, plaintiff became a part-time release manager on a product called ARIS. Her duties included setting release schedules, "tracking milestones, running the release meetings, [and] making sure that the product was following all of the quality methods of operation procedures and paperwork . . ." Defendant required her to work twenty-five hours per week, but she often worked overtime because of the volume of work.
On April 11, 2005, plaintiff requested a six-month maternity leave because she was expecting her tenth child. Throughout her employment, plaintiff had requested and had received leaves of absence for the births of her other nine children. Plaintiff's supervisor, Craig Joseph, notified plaintiff that Janice Cocca, a release manager on two other products, would perform plaintiff's job in her absence. Prior to plaintiff beginning her maternity leave, plaintiff trained Cocca to act as release manager for ARIS.
On June 1, 2005, plaintiff stopped working, and on June 9, 2005, she gave birth to her son.
On June 20, 2005, defendant sent plaintiff a form letter notifying her that defendant had approved her six-month leave of absence. The letter reiterated the company policy on maternity leave, stating, in relevant part:
[Y]our unpaid Family Care Leave of Absence from July 22, 2005
through January 22, 2006 is approved and will be counted towards your
12 weeks of 2005 and 2006 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
This leave is granted with a guarantee of reinstatement up to 12 months to the same or comparable job, including the number of hours and days worked during the week, salary, and benefits prior to the Leave starting. Reinstatement is not guaranteed if your job is declared surplus or the number of hours you request to work at the time of reinstatement is different than when the Leave commenced.
During the course of litigation, defendant defined "declared surplus" to mean "the position the employee was filling is no longer required," and also referred to it as "a reduction in force or force adjustment."
On January 6, 2006, plaintiff requested another six-month leave to run from January 22 to July 21, 2006. That same day, defendant approved the request and again notified plaintiff in writing that so long as her position was not declared surplus and she did not request a change in hours, reinstatement of her position was guaranteed following her leave.
In February 2006, after defendant reorganized, Joseph lost supervision of one release manager and determined that the ARIS product required a full-time release manager. Cocca filled that position.
In June 2006, plaintiff informed defendant that she planned to return to work on July 20, 2006, in a part-time capacity working twenty-five hours per week. Joseph asked plaintiff if she was willing to return to work full-time because the ARIS release manager position required those ...