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September 2011

California Courts Clarify Employees' Reinstatement Rights Under CFRA

In the recently decided case of Rogers v. County of Los Angeles, the California Court of Appeal issued an opinion favorable to employers regarding family/medical leave under the California Family Rights Act of 1993 ("CFRA"). 

CFRA, codified at California Government Code § 12945.2, expressly allows an employee to take up to a total of 12 workweeks in any 12 month period.  The statute also requires an employer to provide a guarantee of employment in the same or a comparable position upon the expiration of leave.  To establish a violation of CFRA, a plaintiff must show that:  (1) the defendant was a covered employer; (2) the plaintiff was eligible for CFRA leave; (3) the plaintiff exercised his or her right to take a qualifying leave; and (4) the plaintiff suffered an adverse employment action because he or she exercised the right to take CFRA leave. 

In Rogers v. County of Los Angeles, the plaintiff worked as the personnel officer in the executive office of Los Angeles County.  In April 2006, plaintiff took a stress-related leave of absence, which the County characterized as "family/medical/CFRA" leave.  Shortly after plaintiff began her leave of absence, the County appointed a new executive officer, who decided to reorganize the office.  This reorganization included the hiring of a new personnel officer and transferring the plaintiff to a new position.  Plaintiff did not return to work until August 2006, nineteen (19) weeks after beginning her leave.  After learning of her new position upon her return to work she became upset and hostile because she believed it was a demotion.  She called in sick for the rest of the week and then retired. 

In December 2007, plaintiff sued the County for violations of CFRA.  Her lawsuit ultimately proceeded to a jury trial on her allegations that the County had interfered with her CFRA rights by transferring her to a non-comparable position and had retaliated against her for exercising her CFRA rights.  The jury found in favor of plaintiff on both issues and the County appealed. 

The Court of Appeal overturned the jury's verdict in its entirety, holding that "CFRA's reinstatement rights only apply when an employee returns to work on or before the expiration of the 12 week protected leave."  The Court explained that this ruling was based on several factors, including that:  (1) CFRA's statutory language expressly allows an employee "to take up to a total of 12 workweeks in any 12 month period"; (2) Other obligations under CFRA are expressly tied to the 12 week protected leave policy (i.e. requirements regarding sick leave); (3) Other courts have previously held that CFRA and the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") only ensure protected leave for a 12 week period; and (4) the Legislature's intent in enacting CFRA and FMLA is supported by this ruling limiting protected leave to 12 weeks. 

While the Rogers v. County of Los Angeles ruling is favorable to employers with regard to CFRA, employers should be cautioned that if an employee makes a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), an employee may be entitled to additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.  For some unknown reason, the Rogers case did not include any claims under the ADA or FEHA.  Both California courts and the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission have established that inflexible leave policies that end after a specified period of time may violate the ADA and FEHA.  Accordingly, when an employee requests additional leave for medically related reasons, employers should be prepared to discuss possible accommodations or offer further accommodations, including extra leave before moving to terminate.

Employment Law

Debra Ellwood Meppen

Employment Law