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Fed court rules Wisconsin maternity leave law trumped by ERISA

Under Wisconsin's Family Medical Leave Act (WFMLA), employers must allow six weeks of unpaid maternity leave to an employee who acts as a primary caretaker after having a child. In addition, the WFMLA has a "substitution provision," which provides that an employee can substitute "paid or unpaid leave of any other type provided by the employer" under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) leave, if the employee has one.

However, ERISA is a federal law that requires an administrator of the benefits plan to only pay short-term disability benefits to employees who qualify under the employer's plan. Under many companies, maternity leave is not defined as a short-term disability for longer than six weeks.

This can lead to conflicting laws regarding when, and how much time, an employee can receive paid leave after the birth of a child under state and federal law.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued an opinion on this exact issue. The court found that ERISA is a federal statute that both expressly and impliedly preempts state law under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution, meaning that an employee could not receive any additional paid maternity leave under Wisconsin's substitution provision in the WFMLA.

Sherfel v. Newson

The case arose when an employee of Nationwide Insurance obtained six weeks of paid maternity leave following the birth of her child. After her six weeks were up, she requested an additional three weeks of paid leave under the WFMLA's substitution provision. Nationwide rejected the leave, finding that she was not short-term disabled under its ERISA plan. The employee subsequently filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court had already weighed in on the issue when the employee filed her complaint. It found in previous cases that ERISA did not preempt Wisconsin law, even as applied to ERISA plans. As such, an Administrative Law Judge ordered Nationwide to pay the employee the additional benefits. Nationwide filed an appeal in federal court, where its headquarters were located, in order to "clarify its obligation," according to the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit found that ERISA did preempt state law and found that Nationwide did not need to pay the additional benefits.

There was one dissenting opinion issued by the Sixth Circuit. In her dissent, Judge Stranch found that ERISA did not expressly preempt the WFMLA because the WFMLA substitution provision did not establish any state regulation that made it impossible to comply with both the WFMLA and ERISA.

An employment law attorney can help

While the decision by the Sixth Circuit did not side with new parents and primary caretakers, employees do have legal rights. Employees who have had their rights under ERISA, the WFMLA, or anti-discrimination laws violated can take their employers to court to obtain compensation for lost wages, reinstatement and other money damages.

Employees concerned that their employment rights have been violated should speak to the experienced employment law attorneys at Lubar & Lanning to discuss their situation and legal options.

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