Fact disputes surrounding employee’s three medical leaves send California leave law claims to jury

Addressing cross motions for summary judgment in a case in which an employee alleged his former employer interfered with his rights under the California Family Rights Act, retaliated against him for taking CFRA leave, and constructively discharged him, a federal court in California found, among other things, fact issues as to whether he was or would have been eligible for medical leave for the duration of each of his three leaves. And while it granted his motion for summary judgement insofar as it concerned any defense that his failure to return the fitness-for-duty certification provided a legal basis for his termination or any other adverse employment action, it found triable fact issues regarding whether he was on protected leave in connection with his first and third leaves, the adequacy of his work status reports as CFRA certifications, and whether he received paperwork from the company that he did not complete, and if so, the impact of that failure.

Promoted to general foreman in 2008, the long-term employee did not receive any negative written performance evaluations while in that position. In March 2014, he told his supervisor and the site manager he would be taking time off for eye surgery. Around that same time, his supervisor’s boss verbally recommended that the employee be demoted.

Work status reports.

Although the company’s benefits administrator sent him an FMLA eligibility package, there was no evidence he returned any of the certification paperwork. He did, however, provide work status reports from his doctor. The reports, however, did not identify the date of onset of his condition or how long it was expected to last. While on leave, the employee received a check showing his hourly rate of pay had decreased. He questioned this upon his return to work at the end of April and was placed back in his general foreman position with the higher rate of pay.

Second leave.

In June, the employee requested a second leave because he did “not feel good.” He was again sent an FMLA packet and once again failed to return certification paperwork. Although he attempted to return to work in June and July, he was not allowed to until he provided a medical release from his doctor. He was also told his request for FMLA leave had been denied because he did not return the required paperwork.

Third leave.

Not long after he returned, he took a third medical leave for a second eye surgery. The employee was again sent an FMLA packet and again did not return any certification paperwork. He returned to work on August 4 and on his first day back was asked to accept a materials expediter positon for lesser pay. He responded that he would rather be laid off if this was going to continue. He was laid off at the end of the day. Two days later, he rejected an offer for a craft foreman position.

No LMRA preemption.

The court first found that the employee’s CFRA and constructive discharge claims were not preempted by LMRA Section 301. A factfinder would not need to interpret the parties’ collective bargaining agreement in order to determine if the company interfered with his leave by denying it or misclassifying it; retaliated against him for taking or requesting medical leave; or made his work conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit. Accordingly, it granted the employee’s motion for summary judgment as to the company’s affirmative defense to the extent it applied to his state-law claims.

Leave entitlement.

The employee also moved for summary judgment on the issue of whether he had the number or hours and length of employment required to entitle him to CFRA leave throughout the four month period that he requested his leaves. While the company informed him he was eligible for leave at the beginning of each of his three leaves, a triable fact issue existed as to whether it actually granted him protected leave and deducted that time from the amount of leave to which he was entitled. While it was undisputed the company denied his second leave request, there was no evidence it denied his first request and there were documents suggesting he was granted his third request.

Further, although the benefits administrator confirmed he was eligible for leave “that whole four-month time period,” she stated that he never returned any forms so the company never counted any leave against him. Thus, the employee only established he was eligible at the beginning of each leave period, not that he was eligible for leave for the length of time he was claiming.

Fitness-for-duty form.

As to the employee’s motion for summary judgment regarding the legal effect of his failure to provide a fitness-for-duty certification, the court found no evidence that any of the three eligibility packets he was sent contained a notice informing him that the company would require a fitness-for duty certification. While the company argued he had knowledge of its policies, it could not demand a fitness for duty clearance unless it included this requirement in its eligibility packet and could not base any alleged adverse employment action on his failure to do so, the court explained.

Protected leave.

For its part, the company moved for summary judgment on the ground that the employee was not on protected leave. Although the employee provided work status reports for each leave, the company argued they were inadequate to establish his entitlement to medical leave because they did not contain the information it requested. Here, the court observed that while the company might be correct that under the CFRA regulations in effect at the time the employee applied for his leave, it did not have any obligation to follow-up with him when he failed to return the CFRA forms, under relevant case law, the CFRA prevents it from using insufficiency of the reports as a defense where it did not request a second medical opinion.

The court also pointed out that there was a dispute as to whether the company in fact requested medical certifications in connection with his second and third medical leaves, thereby triggering his obligation to provide such documents as well as a dispute as to when he provided the reports in connection with his first leave. However, it was undisputed the employee provided the reports supporting his second and third leave requests before the company sent him the leave eligibility packets. Thus, the court could not find the reports, assuming they qualified as medical certifications for CFRA purposes, were untimely on this record.

Further, the court rejected the company’s contention that the employee could only comply with the CFRA certification requirements by completing the specific DOL WH-380 Form it asked him to complete, finding it cited no support for this contention. Accordingly, the court found fact issues regarding whether the employee was on protected leave in connection with his first and third leaves; the adequacy of the work status reports as CFRA certifications; and whether he received paperwork from the company that he did not complete, and if so, the impact of that failure.

Restoration to equivalent position.

Fact issues also existed as to whether the employee would have kept his general foreman position if he never went on leave, said the court, denying the company’s summary judgment motion on this claim.

Punitive damages.

As to the employee’s request for punitive damages, the court noted that in enacting Civil Code section 329415, the California “Legislature intended . . . to limit corporate punitive damage liability to those employees who exercise substantial independent authority and judgment over decisions that ultimately determine corporate policy.” While the employee argued that several individuals, including the site manager, the benefits administrator, the regional HR manager, and the VP of operations exercised substantial authority and judgment in the company’s decision making, the court disagreed, finding no triable issue that they were managing agents for purposes of awarding punitive damages.

SOURCE: Razo v. TIMEC Co., Inc. (ND Cal), No. 15-cv-03414-MEJ, November 3, 2017.
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