A recent ruling by the California Supreme Court underscores potential pitfalls for employers who are considering requests for medical leave through the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

CFRA is the state equivalent to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act. CFRA requires that employers with 50 or more employees allow an employee up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave or family care if the employee has worked for the employer for more than one year and has had at least 1,250 hours of employment during the previous year. Among other things, CFRA entitles covered employees to such medical leaves for, among other things, a serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the functions of his or her position. If the employee's health care provider and the employer's retained health care provider disagree over whether the employee in fact has such a serious health condition, CFRA provides that the employer may refer the matter to an agreed-upon health care provider, whose opinion will be final and binding.

In Lonicki v. Sutter Health Central, the California Supreme Court ruled that an employer is not required to refer such disputes to a third health care provider. Thus, the employer, the Court ruled, had a choice of obtaining or not obtaining a binding decision from a third health care provider and that the employer’s decision not to do so did not bar the employer in later litigation from asserting that the employee did not suffer from a serious health condition and was capable of performing his or her job. In the case, the employee held a part-time job with another employer that was similar to her position with Sutter, even while on medical leave from Sutter. The employee refused to report to work and was terminated, and subsequently filed a lawsuit against Sutter for unlawful termination in violation of CFRA. Although the employer won summary judgment in the trial court, which was upheld by the court of appeal, the Supreme Court reversed the granting of summary judgment, holding that while the part-time job may have been strong evidence that the employee was capable of performing her job with Sutter, it did not conclusively establish that fact. Thus, the case was remanded for a jury trial on the merits.

The CFRA can provide traps for the employer in addressing unpaid leave requests of employees. This decision of the California Supreme Court illustrates how important it is to be aware of the possible pitfalls in addressing such requests, particularly when an employer is deciding whether or not to refer a disputed medical leave case to a third health care provider. The Labor and Employment Group in Ballard Spahr's Los Angeles office can provide comprehensive legal counsel in such matters.


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