Californians who work for employers with at least 50 or more employees may be eligible to take protected leave to care for themselves or their family members who have serious medical conditions under the California Family Rights Act. If an employer retaliates against an employee for taking protected CFRA leave, the employer may be liable to pay damages to the employee. A recent case in California examines the notice requirements for taking protected leave under the act and what occurs when an employee takes leave for conditions that are not foreseeable.
The plaintiff, Leticia Bareno, worked for San Diego Miramar College as an administrative assistant. She was disciplined for her work. Not long after being disciplined, Bareno requested medical leave from her job and provided medical certification of her leave request. When her leave period was coming to an end, Bareno tried to email her supervisor a recertification showing her continued need for leave, but the college asserted that the supervisor did not receive the recertification.
When she did not return at the end of the original leave period, the college counted it as if she had voluntarily resigned from her job when five days passed. When Bareno learned that the college considered her to have resigned from her job, she attempted to provide it with her recertification showing her need for additional leave. The college refused to reconsider its position and would not reinstate her to her job.
Bareno filed a lawsuit against the San Diego Miramar College, the San Diego Community College District and the San Diego Community College District Administrative Facilities Corporation. She alleged that the defendants had violated her rights under the California Family Rights Act by retaliating against her for taking medical leave. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment with the trial court, and the court granted it, dismissing Bareno’s sole claim. Bareno then filed an appeal of the trial court’s decision.
Bareno argued that the trial court’s ruling granting a dismissal of her retaliation claim was made in error. She argued that there were still material facts that were triable and in dispute that should be determined by a jury.
The defendants argued that Bareno did not give proper notice of her request for leave from March 1 through March 8, the absence period during which the five consecutive days were counted against her as a voluntary resignation. They argued that she was mailed a notice of her voluntary resignation and that she had a right to request a meeting with her supervisor within five days but hadn’t done so. Because she didn’t, the defendants argued that her lawsuit should be dismissed.
Analysis under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA)
The California Family Rights Act was enacted in 1991. It makes it unlawful for employers that have 50 or more employees to refuse to grant employee leave requests to care for their families or for their own medical needs for up to 12 weeks during a work year. The law requires that employees provide advance notice to their employers for leave that is reasonably foreseeable. Employees may file claims against their employers if their employers unreasonably denied leave or interfered with their ability to take protected leave. They may also file claims if their employers retaliated against them for taking leave by engaging in adverse job actions, including terminations. Bareno’s claim was for retaliation because of the determination by the college that her leave was protected and was not a voluntary resignation.
In order to prevail on a retaliation claim under the CFRA, plaintiffs must be able to show the following:
- The plaintiff worked for a covered employer;
- The plaintiff was an eligible employee under the CFRA;
- The plaintiff’s reason for taking leave was a qualifying one under the CFRA; and
- The plaintiff experienced an adverse employment action as a result of taking leave.
To establish a prima facie case of retaliation, plaintiffs must show that they engaged in protected activities, including taking protected leave, that their employers took negative job actions against them and that the protected activities caused the employers to take the negative job actions. If an employee shows these three things, then the employer has a burden of providing a non-retaliatory reason for taking its adverse job action.
In Bareno’s case, the defendants argued that Bareno’s case failed because she couldn’t show that she took leave for a purpose that qualified under the CFRA. They argued that she either didn’t give notice for her leave between March 1 and March 8. In the alternative, the defendants argued that if she did, the doctor’s certification was insufficient under the law’s requirements.
The court found that Bareno did give sufficient notice under the act. It pointed out that the act requires a reasonable notice for leave that is foreseeable but that it does not give notice requirements for protected leave that is unforeseeable. Employees are not required to expressly state that they are taking leave according to their rights under CFRA. As long as the reason for taking the leave under the act is a qualifying one and the employee tells his or her employer about the reason, the notice is considered to be sufficient. The law states that a 30-day advance notice should be given for leave that is foreseeable, but there is no 30-day advance notice requirement for unforeseeable leave such as Bareno’s leave. As long as the notice was given by the employee to the employer as soon as it was practical, it is considered to be sufficient under the law.
Based on the court’s analysis, the trial court’s ruling was reversed, and the matter was sent back to the trial court for further proceedings. The Appeals court found that Bareno had shown sufficient evidence that she had given notice as soon as it was practical, so her case should not have been dismissed.
Contact an attorney
People who believe that their employers retaliated against them for taking protected leave from work under the CFRA might want to consult with an attorney. A lawyer may analyze the facts of the case and provide an assessment of whether or not the person appears to have a valid retaliation claim.