The legal issue addressed by NELF in this case (a legal malpractice action) was not whether a plaintiff-employee would have a claim against her employer for breaching a promise to allow her to take a longer leave that the eight weeks required by the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act (“MMLA”), Mass. G. L. c. 149, § 105D. Instead, the issue was whether the MMLA’s extraordinary remedies (including damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and reasonable attorney’s fees), rather than ordinary contract damages, would apply if the employee proved such a breach.
At the heart of the controversy was a guideline issued by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”), which provided that, when an employer agrees to a leave period longer than eight weeks, the MMLA’s statutory remedies would apply in the event of breach of that agreement unless the employer has given advance written notice that they would not. NELF, joined in its amicus brief by Associated Industries of Massachusetts, argued that liability under the MMLA applies only to the eight weeks of statutory maternity leave, and that liability under the Act does not extend to any agreed-upon period of time beyond eight weeks.
In its August 9, 2010 decision, the SJC embraced NELF’s reading of the MMLA. The Court held that the statute expressly defines maternity leave as a period of up to eight weeks and, therefore, that the statute does not apply to any agreed-upon leave that exceeds eight weeks. While an employee alleging breach of such an agreed-upon leave may indeed have a claim for breach of contract, the employee would have no claim under the MMLA. As the Court explained succinctly, “[t]he language of the MMLA is clear and unambiguous. . . . Once a female employee is absent from employment for more than eight weeks, she is no longer within the purview of the MMLA and, consequently, is not afforded the protections conferred by the statute. . . . A female employee is only entitled to MMLA rights when she is absent from employment for no more than eight weeks.” Accordingly, the court declared that the MCAD guideline is invalid to the extent it suggests that female employees may have MMLA rights beyond the first eight weeks of an authorized maternity leave.