A California court has ruled that an employer did not violate an employee's rights under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) when it refused to reinstate an employee who tried to return to work after 12 weeks of medical leave had expired. The decision aligns California law under CFRA with decisions by federal courts under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Rogers v. County of Los Angeles, 198 Cal. App. 4th 480 (2011).
Employee Took a 19-Week Medical Leave
According to the facts presented by the court, "(a)fter 19 weeks of medical leave, long-time employee Katrina L. Rogers returned to her job with the County of Los Angeles, only to learn that she was being transferred to another position in another department."
Rogers worked for the county for more than 36 years. Her most recent position was as the personnel officer in the county executive office, where she supervised employees performing personnel, payroll, and human resources functions.
In April of 2006, Rogers took a medical leave due to work-related stress. Rogers' leave was designated by the county as CFRA leave, and she was informed via a letter that she was entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid family/medical leave in a 12-month period.
While Rogers was out on leave, a new employee was brought in from outside the organization to fill Rogers' position. This decision was made by the executive officer as part of a reorganization of the county executive office, and was unrelated to Rogers' performance. Other employees were also replaced or moved to different positions.
Rogers was not released to return to work by her physician until August of 2006 - 19 weeks after she first began her leave. When she attempted to return to work, she was told that she was being transferred to a new position in the internal services department. The new position gave Rogers the same salary and benefits. However, the job duties were significantly different, and she would no longer be supervising or managing any employees.
Employee Wins at Trial
Rogers refused to accept the transfer because she believed it was a demotion. She called in sick and then submitted a notice of retirement.
Rogers sued the county claiming that it had interfered with her rights under the CFRA by denying her reinstatement to a same or comparable position after the conclusion of her CFRA leave. Under the CFRA, an employee who takes CFRA leave is guaranteed that taking such leave will not result in a loss of job security or other adverse employment action.
A jury agreed with Rogers, finding that the county had interfered with her CFRA rights by transferring her to a non-comparable position. The jury also found that the transfer was in retaliation for exercising Rogers' protected CFRA rights. She was awarded $356,000.
Court Overturns Jury Verdict
The Court of Appeal overturned the jury's decision. The court ruled that an employee is entitled to reinstatement to the same or comparable position, but only if the employee timely returns from CFRA leave. The court noted that "CFRA's reinstatement right only applies when an employee returns to work on or before the expiration of the 12-week protected leave."
In reaching its decision, the court relied on the explicit language of CFRA, court decisions interpreting both CFRA and FMLA, and the underlying policy of CFRA/FMLA to provide leave protection for up to 12 weeks only. The court noted that the leave protections were not meant to be a "trap for unwary employers" who have already provided the mandated 12 weeks of leave to employees.
Since Rogers did not return until after 19 weeks - long after her 12-week leave had expired - she was not entitled to reinstatement to her previous position or a comparable one. Moreover, the fact that the decision to replace her was made during the course of her CFRA leave was not relevant since she did not attempt to return on or before the expiration of the 12 weeks of leave. The court also overturned the jury's decision that there was retaliation. Instead, the court found that the employer had a legitimate reason to transfer Rogers that was unrelated to her CFRA leave.
Accommodation Issue Not Considered
Employers should be aware that this case only involved a CFRA claim. It did not involve a claim under state or federal laws protecting disabled employees. The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may provide protection for employees to take extended leave as a reasonable accommodation for a qualified disability - even leave beyond a 12-week CFRA/FMLA leave.
A fact sheet prepared by the EEOC provides the following guidance:
Q: Does the FMLA's limit of 12 workweeks of leave in 12-month period mean that the ADA also limits employees to 12 weeks of leave per year?
A: No. The FMLA does not mean that more than 12 weeks of unpaid leave automatically imposes an undue hardship for purposes of the ADA. An otherwise qualified individual with a disability is entitled to more than 12 weeks of unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation if the additional leave would not impose an undue hardship on the operation of the employer's business. To evaluate whether additional leave would impose an undue hardship, the employer may consider the impact on its operations caused by the employee's initial 12-week absence, along with the undue hardship factors specified in the ADA. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(p).
Thus, employers should consider whether the ADA or FEHA provide some additional protections to an employee whose leave exceeds 12 weeks.
- Reinstate employees who return from leave on or before the expiration of 12 weeks of leave to the same or comparable position. Comparable means similar pay, benefits, working conditions, status, duties, responsibility, and level of supervision.
- Reinstate the employee on the agreed upon date, or, if that date has changed, within two business days after the employee has notified you of his/her readiness to return.
- If the employee does not attempt to return until after 12 weeks of leave have expired, consider whether the employee is entitled to additional leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA or FEHA.
- Proceed with caution before denying reinstatement to an employee who has taken a protected leave.