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Mother loses suit over family leave

NASHUA -- A woman who said her company violated the Family and Medical Leave Act by firing her after she missed work to care for her sick daughter has lost a lawsuit against the company.

The company has fewer than 50 employees, and therefore Leeanne Engelhardt was not eligible for protection under the federal act. In her lawsuit, filed in 2004, she had argued she was protected because a parent company had at least that many workers in the area.

The Family and Medical Leave Act gives rights to unpaid leave to employees with health problems or sick family members or to employees who are giving birth to or adopting children.

US District Judge Paul Barbadoro ruled last week that the employers of the parent and subsidiary companies have stayed separate, each responsible for its own personnel decisions.

''I didn't expect to win," Engelhardt told The Telegraph of Nashua on Sunday, ''but I wanted to fight it because I didn't want other people to lose their jobs because they had a sick family member."

Engelhardt, of Windham, worked as a customer service representative at S.P. Richards Co.'s office supplies distribution center for nearly three years. On Dec. 17, 2002, she was fired after staying home the previous day to care for her 16-year-old daughter, according to the court's final order. Engelhardt had been absent several times to care for her daughter, who suffers from a chronic illness.

She said she had informed the company each time about the reason for her absence, but had not requested a formal leave.

''If it comes between being there for my daughter and my job, I don't have a choice," she said. ''I couldn't leave her alone. For each day I missed, I had documentation from the emergency room."

Engelhardt, who has four children, went on unemployment and filed her suit against Richards, a wholesaler and distributor based in Smyrna, Ga., and its parent company, Genuine Parts Co., of Atlanta, which runs NAPA Auto Parts stores.

She pointed out that she had signed employee policies of the parent company; was eligible to participate in the parent company's benefits plans; and was paid from the parent company's payroll account. The subsidiary company reimburses the parent company for those costs and pays an administrative fee for processing costs.

''While I agree that GPC has assumed some of the administrative burdens associated with the provision of salary and benefits to SPR's employees, it is significant that SPR remains financially responsible for all of its employees' benefits," Barbadoro said. ''Given the lengths to which both companies have gone to maintain separate identities, this limited evidence of interrelated operations is not sufficient to qualify GPC and SPR as an integrated employer."

Engelhardt now works as a baby sitter. Her daughter, now 20 and in college, is doing better.

''In a way, getting fired was a blessing, because I could be with my daughter," she said. ''But I still think going to the emergency room is an excused absence."

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