Court of Appeals: Employers Cannot Just Terminate When an Authorized Leave Expires!
A California Court of Appeal recently issued its decision in Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., addressing whether an employee fired after exhausting her 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave could assert valid claims against the employer for pregnancy discrimination and failure to accommodate a disability. The court said yes.
In Sanchez, the plaintiff employee only worked for Swissport for about a year and one-half when she learned she was pregnant and that she had a high-risk pregnancy requiring bed rest. She informed her employer that she needed a leave of absence from February through at least her due date in October. Her employer provided her with the full 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave required under California’s pregnancy disability leave law. The employer also allowed her to use an additional three weeks of accrued vacation, bringing the employee’s total leave to 19 weeks. The employee was unable to return to work at the end of that 19 weeks, as it was only July and she was not due to give birth until October. Swissport terminated her employment. Can you guess what happened next?
You guessed it. The employee sued. Swissport promptly moved to dismiss the case, arguing that because it provided the maximum leave (16 weeks) required for pregnancy disability in California, the employee’s claims for pregnancy discrimination, gender discrimination, and failure to accommodate a disability were invalid as a matter of law. The trial court agreed and threw out the case. Not so fast, though…the employee successfully appealed.
In its recent decision, the California Court of Appeal held that the trial court should not have thrown out the case at the motion to dismiss stage. The court held that an employer’s providing of the 16 weeks of leave for pregnancy disability does not automatically shield the employer from claims for failure to accommodate a disability or for gender/pregnancy discrimination under FEHA. The court reasoned that an extended leave of absence (beyond 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave) may be a “reasonable accommodation” for a disability required under FEHA, and that Swissport may have been required to provide the additional leave time absent a showing of undue hardship. The case was, therefore, remanded to the trial court level so that the employee’s FEHA claims could be litigated.
The Sanchez v. Swissport case is a good reminder for employers that simply complying with maximum leave entitlements provided under laws such as California’s pregnancy disability leave law and/or FMLA/CFRA does not necessarily satisfy an employer’s obligation to a disabled employee. Employers who terminate disabled employees simply because they have exhausted statutory leave entitlements are likely to face claims for failure to accommodate and disability discrimination. Employers should always engage in an interactive process with the employee at or near the expiration of the leave to assess how much additional leave time (or other accommodations) the employee needs and determine whether additional leave can be provided as a reasonable accommodation and without undue hardship to the employer.
NOW hopefully you understand why we always stress not to be so quick in terminating an employee who has exceeded any leave period. As we have always stated just wait, let the time pass, the more time that passes beyond the return date the better for you. You have to be patient. I know it can be frustrating but as you can see it could cost you.