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Esler v. Sylvia-Reardon

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

March 9, 2016

Marie Esler
v.
Mary Sylvia-Reardon & another. [1]

         Argued November 3, 2015

          Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on March 11, 2010.

         The case was tried before Linda E. Giles, J., and a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, for a new trial was heard by her.

         After review by the Appeals Court, the Supreme Judicial Court granted leave to obtain further appellate review.

          Herbert L. Holtz ( Thomas A. Reed with him) for the defendants.

          Jonathan J. Margolis for the plaintiff.

Page 776

          Meghan Hayes Slack & Chetan Tiwari, for Massachusetts Employment Lawyers Association, amicus curiae, submitted a brief.

         Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ.

          OPINION

          [46 N.E.3d 536] Botsford, J.

          Only one count of the plaintiff Marie Esler's eight-count complaint against her former employer, defendant Massachusetts General Hospital (hospital), and her former supervisor, defendant Mary Sylvia-Reardon, survived for purposes of trial.[2] In answer to special questions, a jury returned a verdict in Esler's favor on her claim that the hospital terminated her employment in retaliation for her exercise of the right to take medical leave under the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § § 2601 et seq. (2012), and awarded her damages consisting of $567,500 in back pay and $672,686 in front pay. The defendants thereafter filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (judgment n.o.v.)[3] or, in the alternative, for a new trial. See Mass. R. Civ. P. 50 (b), as amended, 428 Mass. 1402 (1998). The trial judge allowed the motion for judgment n.o.v. but took no specific action on the defendants' alternative request for a new trial.[4] The judge also ruled that the issue of front pay should not have been submitted to the jury, and she concluded that there was insufficient evidence to provide for such an award in this case. In a decision issued pursuant to its rule 1:28, the Appeals Court reversed the entry of judgment for the defendants on the motion for judgment n.o.v. and affirmed the judge's order with respect to front pay. The case is now before us for [46 N.E.3d 537] further appellate review. Like the Appeals Court, we reverse the allowance of the defendants' motion for judgment n.o.v. and affirm the judge's order with respect to front pay. We remand the case to the Superior Court for consideration of the defendants' alternative request for a new trial.

Page 777

          Factual background.

          We summarize facts the jury could have found at trial, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Esler and disregarding evidence favorable to the defendants. See O'Brien v. Pearson, 449 Mass. 377, 383, 868 N.E.2d 118 (2007). Esler began working as an acute hemodialysis nurse in 1997. In March, 2003, she was hired by the hospital as a registered nurse in the hemodialysis unit. Sylvia-Reardon was the nursing director of the unit, and she became Esler's supervisor in approximately 2006.

         Six nurses on the unit, including Sylvia-Reardon, have taken FMLA leave. In November, 2008, Esler made a first request for FMLA leave on account of symptoms, relating in part to a blood disorder, including anxiety and fatigue. The hospital approved Esler's request on or about December 2, 2008; the approved leave period was from November 14 to December 15, 2008. During this leave, and consistent with advice provided by her doctor, who suggested that she engage in pleasurable activities and light exercise to relieve stress, Esler went to New York City to visit friends. While ice skating in New York, Esler fell and injured her wrist. On December 5, Esler received a " curt" or " rather nasty" telephone call from Sylvia-Reardon stating that Esler's FMLA paperwork had not been received and that " your job is in jeopardy and I don't need to hold your position." [5] Esler informed Sylvia-Reardon that she was in New York and could not follow up that day with her physician, to which Sylvia-Reardon responded, " What? You're on FMLA leave and you're in New York [C]ity vacationing?" When Esler told Sylvia-Reardon about her wrist injury, Sylvia-Reardon responded, " Well, Marie, I need to have you back here next week or I can't hold your job."

         Soon after this conversation, Esler learned that she had fractured her wrist and injured a tendon in her thumb, and that she needed hand surgery. She submitted a second request for FMLA leave, which the hospital approved beginning on December 8, 2008, and ending on February 6, ...


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