The Ability of an Employee to Work for Another Employer Doing a Similar Job Does Not Necessarily Allow You to Deny Medical Leave

The California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”) applies to companies with 50 or more employees and allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid “family care and medical leave” if the employee has worked for the company for more than a year and has a minimum of 1,250 hours of service during the previous year.  Grounds for leave under the CFRA include child-related needs (e.g., birth and adoption), the serious illness of a family member or, as relevant here, when an employee’s serious health condition “makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position of that employee.”  During an employee’s medical leave under the CFRA, the employer must continue to provide the employee with health benefits and, when the employee returns to work, he or she must be given the same seniority as before the leave.

Based on the language of the CFRA alone, it seems logical to presume that an employee who can work for another employer doing the same job that he or she does for you is not “unable to perform the functions of the position of that employee.”  Well, the California Supreme Court weighed in and rejected that presumption.

Antonia Lonicki v. Sutter Health Central
Antonia Lonicki worked at a hospital owned by Sutter Health Central as a certified technician in the hospital’s sterile processing department.  Ms. Lonicki claimed she suffered from stress due to the fact that the hospital was a Level II trauma center and other work-related difficulties.  After her shift was changed one day and her request for vacation was denied, Ms. Lonicki left work and claimed that she was too upset to return.  At the request of her supervisor, Ms. Lonicki obtained a note from a nurse practitioner for a one-month leave of absence for “medical reasons.”  Over the next month, Ms. Lonicki saw several other healthcare professionals with regard to her medical complaints, including a physician chosen by Sutter.  The opinions of these healthcare professionals differed with respect to whether Ms. Lonicki could return to work for Sutter without restrictions.  Despite Sutter’s numerous requests that Ms. Lonicki return to work, Ms. Lonicki did not do so.  Sutter discharged Ms. Lonicki for failure to appear for work.

During the time that Ms. Lonicki was on medical leave from Sutter, she was working part-time at another hospital (Kaiser) where her duties and tasks were nearly identical to those she performed at Sutter.  At her deposition, Ms. Lonicki testified that her duties at Kaiser were “about the same,” but that it was “a lot slower” at Kaiser because Kaiser was not a Level II trauma center.

In defending against Ms. Lonicki’s lawsuit charging that Sutter violated the CFRA, Sutter argued that Ms. Lonicki did not qualify for CFRA medical leave because her part-time job with Kaiser demonstrated that she did not have a “serious health condition” that made her “unable to perform the functions” of her full-time job at Sutter.  The Court did not accept this argument.  While the Court found that Ms. Lonicki’s ability to work part-time for Kaiser doing tasks virtually identical to those she claimed she was unable to perform for Sutter was strong evidence she was capable of doing her full-time job at Sutter, that fact alone was not dispositive.  The court reasoned that a serious health condition that prevents an employee from doing the tasks of an assigned position does not necessarily indicate that the employee is incapable of doing a similar job for another employer.  The court illustrated its point with the following example: A position in the emergency room of a hospital that regularly treats a high volume of critical injuries may be far more stressful than similar work in the emergency room of hospital that sees relatively few critical injuries.

What Can Employers Take From the Court’s Decision?
The California Supreme Court’s decision establishes that an employee’s ability to perform similar duties for another employer does not conclusively prove that the employee may be denied CFRA medical leave.  Instead, the inquiry as to whether an employee is unable to perform the functions of his or her position for purposes of the CFRA must focus on the specific job assigned to the employee and not simply the general job functions.  Thus, any policy or practice of automatically denying or terminating CFRA medical leave based on the fact that an employee is performing similar tasks for another employer is likely to lead to trouble.  The Court’s decision makes it clear that there is no safe harbor.  Rather, employers must carefully review and consider all of the relevant facts in determining if an employee is truly “unable to perform the functions of the position of that employee” for purposes of determining if CFRA medical leave must be given.