Legal Alert: California Court of Appeal Holds that Employer's Failure to Provide Employee with Notice of Rights under California Family Rights Act Precluded Summary Judgment in Employer's Favor

Date   May 18, 2007

A recent decision by a California Court of Appeal demonstrates the importance of ensuring that employee leave requests are handled by one central manager who is well trained on the laws (both federal and state) governing such requests.

A recent decision by a California Court of Appeal demonstrates the importance of ensuring that employee leave requests are handled by one central manager who is well trained on the laws (both federal and state) governing such requests. In Faust v. California Portland Cement Company (5/10/07), the Court of Appeal reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer and reinstated the employee’s claims, based on the employer’s failure to provide the employee with notice of his rights under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).
In this case, Faust, a long-term employee of Portland, claimed he suffered anxiety and severe back pain because his co-workers gave him a "cold shoulder" and refused to assist him at work after they learned that Faust had sent Portland’s plant manager an e-mail accusing various unnamed employees of internal theft and misconduct. Faust claimed that his co-workers' conduct caused him to fear for his safety and to develop physical symptoms related to anxiety.
Faust entered into a 30-day psychiatric program and filed a workers’ compensation claim. Faust's attorney informed Portland of the claim. Faust provided Portland with documentation of psychiatric impairment for the 30-day time period he received treatment. He also submitted a medical certification from his chiropractor indicating he was being treated for back pain and would be unable to perform his regular duties for a period of time. Portland’s human resources manager left Faust a telephone message stating that there were some problems with the chiropractor’s note. Faust’s wife returned the call, because Faust’s psychiatrist had advised him not to speak with Portland due to his anxiety. Mrs. Foust asked that Portland communicate with her, the chiropractor, or the workers’ compensation attorney. However, Portland did not contact any of those individuals.
A week later, the human resources manager sent Faust a letter stating what she believed was incomplete about the doctor’s note submitted by Faust’s chiropractor. Faust’s workers’ compensation attorney told him that Portland should contact either the chiropractor or the attorney, but that Faust should not respond to the letter. Faust assumed that the human resources manager would contact his workers’ compensation attorney, but she did not do so.
Ultimately, Portland terminated Faust for failing to provide sufficient paperwork to support his leave. Faust sued the company, claiming wrongful termination, disability discrimination, violations of the CFRA, and violation of California’s Business and Professions Code. The trial court granted Portland’s motion for summary judgment, which the Court of Appeal reversed.
While reversing the trial court's decision as to all of the theories upon which Faust sought relief, most of the Court's analysis addressed the CFRA claims. Essentially, the Court held that Portland had failed to comply with its obligations under the CFRA, which precluded summary judgment. The Court noted that the regulations governing the CFRA required Portland to provide all employees with notice of the right to request CFRA leave, and the procedures for requesting such leave, which Portland failed to do. Portland, in essence, terminated Faust for not following procedures, i.e. providing certain specified medical certification information, of which he was never was informed.
Portland argued that it was not aware that the time off authorized by Faust’s chiropractor qualified as CFRA leave and that chiropractors are not “health care providers” who can certify the need for CFRA leave. The Court disagreed, explaining that chiropractors can, indeed, be “heath care providers” able to certify CFRA leave. Moreover, all Faust needed to do was provide verbal notice sufficient to make the employer aware of the need for the CFRA-qualifying leave. The employee need not even mention the CFRA in his request. Thus, Portland had sufficient notice that Faust needed time off that could qualify for CFRA leave.
Employers' Bottom Line:
Frequently, an employee asks his or her “first line” supervisor for time off for medical-related reasons. Such supervisors may not be aware of the legal requirements of the CFRA or the FMLA and may not know what questions to ask the employee. They also may not recognize when a request for leave is "normal" sick time, versus time off protected by the CFRA or FMLA. Additionally, they don’t understand the ramifications of denying the leave request. Thus, all employees, supervisors and non-supervisors alike, must be trained that all requests for leave of any sort should be made to a central human resources manager. That way, employers will be able to avoid inconsistencies and erroneous decisions made by supervisors who are not familiar with the legal requirements for medical leave. However, this only works if the individuals who are making the leave decisions are appropriately trained.
If you have any questions regarding this case or the CFRA or FMLA, please contact the Ford & Harrison attorney with whom you typically work or the author of this Alert, Helene Wasserman, at or (213) 237-2403. Helene is the host of the Employer Helpcast, which is a "one stop website" for both "nuts and bolts" employment law advice and insight into new legal developments affecting employers.