Avila v. Continental Airlines, Inc. is the latest court decision to highlight the often complex intersection between disability and medical leave laws. Continental terminated Plaintiff Avila for excessive absences from work. Avila claimed that his absences resulted in part from his hospitalization for acute pancreatitis, and he sued Continental for disability discrimination under California's Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and retaliation for taking protected leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).
Avila claimed that he provided Continental with two medical forms confirming his hospitalization and that he had told his close friends at work, but not his supervisors, that he was suffering from pancreatitis. A California court of appeal upheld the dismissal of Avila's disability discrimination claim because the managers who made the decision to terminate Avila did not know of his alleged disability. In reaching this conclusion, the court observed that an employee's hospitalization, without more information, is insufficient to put an employer on notice that the employee is disabled under FEHA. For example, Avila could have been hospitalized for minor elective surgery or for preventive treatment to address a condition that did not rise to the level of a qualifying disability. Moreover, the court rejected Avila's argument that his disclosure of his condition to co-workers constituted notice to the employer, as there was no evidence he had directly informed his supervisors of the condition or that they were otherwise aware of it.
However, the court reversed the dismissal of Avila's CFRA retaliation claim, holding that a factual dispute existed as to whether Continental was on notice through the medical forms that Avila needed CFRA leave for a serious health condition. The court noted that while calling in sick does not by itself put the employer on notice, a form indicating that an employee needs to be, or has been, hospitalized for three or more days may suffice (Avila's forms indicated that he had in fact been hospitalized for three days). The court observed that CFRA does not provide clear guidance as to what constitutes a request for CFRA leave. However, an employee need not explicitly reference CFRA or utter any magic words if the employer is otherwise notified that the employee suffers from a "serious health condition" that necessitates an absence from work. The court concluded that Avila presented sufficient evidence to place Continental on notice that his leave may have triggered rights under CFRA, and to the extent Continental required further information to confirm the applicability of CFRA and whether Avila in fact sought a CFRA leave, the airline bore the burden to inquire further.
This decision confirms that medical leaves, even those of a short duration, must be handled carefully by employers, and supervisors must be aware of the differences between a disability and a serious health condition within the meaning of FEHA and CFRA.