Los Angeles workers are protected under state and federal law from discrimination based on pregnancy and based on engaging in protected activities, including taking leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the state’s California Family Rights Act. Workers who work for covered employers must be allowed to take approved leave to care for themselves or for their family members who have serious medical conditions or pregnancy-related medical conditions. In Keri Sullivan v. Save Mart Supermarkets Inc., San Mateo Superior Court No. CIV538881, a woman who suffered pregnancy-related conditions was terminated from her job while she was on medical leave.
Factual background of the case
Keri Sullivan was a 39-year-old bakery and deli manager who had worked for Save Mart for 15 years. She took pregnancy leave in Jan. 2014. When she did, she learned that she had Lupus, which complicated her pregnancy. Sullivan also developed postpartum depression. During her leave, she kept in regular contact with her store manager and with Save Mart’s leave manager, FMLA Source.
Save Mart had a policy of sending what it termed “72-hour” letters to employees who were on medical leave. Employees who received these notices had to respond with medical certification within 72 hours or be fired. FMLA Source sent its notice to Sullivan’s address of record. Two weeks later, the letter was sent back to FMLA Source as undeliverable. Sullivan was then sent a termination letter to the same address, which was also returned as undeliverable to FMLA Source.
Sullivan’s supervisor gave FMLA Source her phone number, but she was never contacted. She didn’t learn that she had been fired until two weeks later when she called her supervisor. She then spoke with the HR manager, who allegedly refused to help her. Sullivan then filed a grievance with her union, but nothing was done. She filed a lawsuit alleging pregnancy discrimination, disability discrimination and wrongful termination.
Sullivan argued that Save Mart did not offer her reasonable accommodations by giving her her job as a bakery and deli manager back after her leave. She also argued that she was fired from her job because of her pregnancy and her related medical conditions. Finally, the plaintiff argued that Save Mart failed to continue her leave.
The defendant argued that Sullivan failed to give the company her new address or to supply it with medical certification, thus contributing to her own termination. It also argued that it was Sullivan’s fault that the communication and interactive processes broke down. At trial, the company presented evidence that Sullivan had failed to tell the union that she wanted to pursue the grievance that she had filed.
Demands and offers
Before the trial, the defendant made a §998 offer to the plaintiff in the amount of $150,000, which included her attorney’s fees, on Aug. 10, 2017. On Sept. 8, Save Mart extended an offer of $89,001, which was not inclusive of attorney’s costs. The plaintiff did not accept either offer, so the case proceeded to trial.
Trial and verdict
The trial lasted for six days. Both sides called their own medical and technical experts and presented evidence. After the sides rested, the case was sent to the jury. The jury deliberated for one day before returning a verdict in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of $578,425. The jury did not allocate any fault to the plaintiff, so she was awarded the entire gross award. Of the award, $425,000 was for non-economic damages for the emotional distress that she suffered, and the remainder was for her past and future economic losses.
Right to medical leave
Both the state and federal laws protect workers who need to take medical leave to care for themselves or for their family members. Workers are required to give their employers notice of their need for leave and to supply medical certifications if they are requested to do so. Employers are also forbidden from discriminating against workers who take medical leave for doing so because it is a violation of public policy. Finally, employers cannot discriminate against workers for their pregnancies or their pregnancy-related conditions and must offer reasonable accommodations to them. Workers who take medical leave under the federal law or under the California Family Rights Act and who work for employers with 50 or more employees must be returned to their jobs when they finish their leave.
While Save Mart argued that the plaintiff was at fault for not updating her address, the company had her phone number and was in regular communication with her throughout her leave. The jury did not find that Sullivan’s failure to update the company with her address was the cause of her termination and instead allocated all of the fault to the company.
Contact an experienced attorney in Los Angeles
If you believe that you were fired because you took medical leave or because of your pregnancy, you may have grounds to file a lawsuit against your former employer. Getting help from an experienced attorney in Los Angeles may be important to help you prove your claim. Contact us today to schedule your consultation so that you can learn more about your potential rights.