California Employer LAWlert: FAILURE TO RETURN FROM A LEAVE OF ABSENCE- Don’t Be Quick to Terminate

Although the following case involves a California employer and California’s version of the ADA, this Alert is relevant to companies nationwide who are subject to the ADA and state equivalents. In Sanchez v. Swissport Inc., employee Sanchez, alleged that she was discriminated against in violation of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  FEHA is California’s state equivalent to the federal American With Disability Act (ADA), and many other states have similar variations of their own disability laws.  Under FEHA any employer with 5 or more employees, is subject to its Pregnancy Disability Leave Law (PDLL), which provides for up to 4 months of unpaid leave for any female employee who has a serious health condition related to her pregnancy, delivery and recovery therefrom. Ms. Sanchez requested and was authorized to take PDL, however, by the conclusion of the leave period Ms. Sanchez was not cleared to return to work and her pregnancy would not run its course for several more months.  Despite the employer’s awareness of Sanchez’ situation, upon her failure to return to work at the conclusion of PDL, Swissport terminated her employment.  As its defense, the company stated that it had fully complied with the PDLL and provided Sanchez all leave due thereunder and as such no further accommodation was required even if it did not cause any hardship to Swissport. The Court of Appeals ruled against Swissport concluding that to agree with the employer would diminish the coverage provided under any other provision of the FEHA which is exactly what FEHA prohibits. The other protections afforded by FEHA include basic protection against discrimination based upon sex, pregnancy, disability etc… and similar to the ADA, under FEHA employers must consider reasonably accommodating disabled employees.  Sanchez’ medical doctor declared her unable to return to work until after delivering her baby.  The fact that despite knowing this, Swissport terminated her employment is a classic act of discrimination based upon sex, disability and pregnancy. Recommendations:
  • Employers need to be very conscious of the protections afforded by disability laws and keep those in mind whenever dealing with an employee who is out on a medical leave of absence.  Simply because the time allotted under the particular leave may be coming to an end does not mean the company is free to terminate an employee who fails to return to work.
  • Management must communicate with employees on leave to continually be updated as to the employee’s status.
  • Notify employees of their rights and responsibilities before taking leave and while on leave.
  • Conduct an interactive process with any such situated employee to make sure the company does not violate disability laws.

 Please do not hesitate to contact Holman HR with any questions you may have regarding this HR Alert.