But take note: Even if your state doesn’t have a specific law, you may need to grant such rights as a matter of “public policy.” A recent court ruling from Washington state shows the legal risks …
CASE IN POINT: Ramona Danny was a scheduling manager for a transit organization in Washington state. Ramona says she and her five children were constantly subjected to domestic violence by her husband. Eventually, she moved out and left her five children. A few months later, she told her supervisor about the situation and requested leave to move her children out of the abusive home. Her supervisor denied the request, saying Ramona’s responsibility to a large project with tight deadlines prohibited the leave.
A few months later, Ramona’s husband allegedly beat their 13-year-old son so severely that he required hospitalization. Ramona immediately moved all the children out of the home. When she returned to work, she again requested leave to move her children into a shelter. The supervisor granted a two-week leave. Ramona used that time to seek police protection from her husband, assist in his prosecution for the beating, find transitional housing and receive domestic violence counseling.
A month after Ramona returned to work from her leave, she was demoted. Two months later, she was fired for allegedly falsifying payroll records. Ramona sued.
At the time, Washington state didn’t have a state law providing employment protection for victims of domestic abuse. But Ramona claimed that the state had established a “public policy” prohibiting employers from firing workers because they experienced domestic violence or took leave related to it. (Danny v. Laidlaw Transit Servs. Inc., Wash., No. 78421-3, 10/03/08).
What happened next and what lessons can be learned?
The Washington State Supreme Court sided with Ramona, ruling that victims of domestic violence can’t be forced to choose between protecting their lives and protecting their livelihoods.
Thanks in part to her testimony, the state legislature voted in 2008 to ensure that victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking can take time off from work to deal with the effects of the crimes. One judge in support of Ramona’s rights wrote, “We should hold that, at the time the employer discharged Ramona Danny, public policy clearly prohibited an employer from discharging an employee because of his or her status as a domestic violence victim or because the employee obtained a protection order, assisted the prosecution of the perpetrator, removed children from an abusive environment, and/or accessed services for domestic violence victims.”
3 Lessons Learned …Without Going to Court
1. Be humane. I cannot imagine any project on this planet that could be so important that it would justify denying Ramona her initial request for leave.
2. No laws in your state? Check out public policies. As in this case, while there was not a specific law protecting the employee against domestic violence, there was plenty of state legislative intent recorded to support a “public policy” protection.
3. Don’t mess with an employee’s job after leave. It only took a month before Ramona was demoted and a few more months until she was fired. As I keep pointing out, courts have “legal stopwatches” and they start it with the request for leave and stop it when you take action against the person. If it’s been clocked in as a short time, you may be forced to write a big check.
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