In the California case, Richie v. AutoNation, an employee out on CFRA (FMLA) was fired by his employer when he was found to have been working at a restaurant he owned during his leave period. The company’s leave policy prohibited outside employment during leave. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiff, stating that FMLA/CFRA (the California equivalent) has a process to follow in shortening FMLA leave if you believe that an employee no longer qualifies for it. You cannot create your own rule or process and, in a sense, do an end run around FMLA protections. The court ruled that because job reinstatement is mandatory, the only way to stop leave properly is by following the CFRA process and questioning the medical opinion of the employee’s doctor.
This decision reminds us that ignorance of legal requirements is no excuse. In this case, the company argued that it had a good faith defense because it was not aware of this limitation on managing leave. The court essentially said “So what? It’s a mandatory statutory obligation, which you can’t avoid.” As a different court stated, “A showing that an employee is unable to work in the employee’s current job due to a serious health condition is enough to demonstrate incapacity. The fact that an employee is working for a second employer does not mean that he or she is not incapacitated from working in his or her current job.”
Some additional notes:
- The decision reminds us that an employer’s policy on secondary employment during FMLA leave must be the same as that for employees who are not on FMLA leave. Otherwise, the policy itself violates the law.
- Second, the court overturned an arbitration decision in this case which allowed the court’s good faith defense. Although review of arbitration is very limited, the court will step in if the arbitrator misapplied the law.
- Finally, whether it’s FMLA leave, ADA accommodation leave, use of PTO or sick pay, etc., if you doubt the veracity of any employee’s story (i.e. they were playing soccer or lifting pianos this weekend), you must follow the proper procedures so that you don’t find yourself trapped like AutoNation did in this case.