When a Societe Generale SA banker failed to show up after his three-year sabbatical ended, the bank fired him.

French judges say that was wrong and awarded him about 92,500 euros ($112,300), in a ruling that sheds light on the tensions between employers and staff legally entitled to return from career breaks with their old status intact.

The man — only referred to as Mr. X in the ruling — didn’t hide his displeasure when he received an email four years ago from SocGen’s human resources team telling him to return to work three days later, even though his previous job no longer existed and after he’d rejected two other roles he felt were unsuitable.

“Ordering me to return this Monday, while remaining fully mysterious about how I will be able to occupy my days, under the gaze of my former colleagues is an embarrassment, humiliation and vexation that I am not ready to suffer,” Mr. X replied by email. That Monday, he just didn’t turn up to work.

A few days later, he got yet another new proposal from SocGen but he also turned it down, considering it was still a downgrade compared to the position he held before his sabbatical.

In its ruling last week, the Versailles court of appeals agreed with him. While the man had lost his first lawsuit, the appellate judges said his dismissal was unwarranted, despite his no-show and SocGen’s efforts to reintegrate him. Under French law, employees granted leave to set up a business are allowed to come back to their previous position. If that is no longer available, companies must offer a similar job with at least the same pay.

SocGen said in a statement that it had sought to respond favorably to his leave requests and to organize his return at the bank “in a satisfactory and responsible manner.” 

Ludivine Choucoutou, an attorney for the banker, said her client was “perfectly allowed to refuse” the positions that were offered, which didn’t match his previous job and would have been tantamount to a demotion. It was SocGen’s duty to find the right fit, as required by French labor law, the attorney said.

Bankers routinely turn to specialist labor courts throughout Europe to recoup lost bonuses and rehabilitate reputations, with varying degrees of success. While a former top performer at Morgan Stanley last year won more than 1.4 million euros in a landmark bonus case, a banker who was voted woman of the year at SocGen lost a lawsuit where she was seeking about $6 million.

After three more unsuccessful reminders asking Mr. X to come back to work, the bank fired him at the end of September 2016.

The Versailles court of appeals ruled that he was “entitled” to refuse the role he’d been offered as deputy to the head of the liquidity team, which would have provided him with less autonomy than in his previous job as well as a smaller perimeter.

“The company could not blame the employee for his absence from this position and use that as a reason to dismiss him for gross misconduct,” the judges said.

It said that while Mr. X would still have managed a team of 25 people he would no longer do that alone and due to an internal reorganization his team no longer handled “collateral,” which had previously been part of his tasks.

That would have amounted to “a unilateral modification of the employment contract which could not be forced upon him,” the court said.



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