Ruling that an employer did not misrepresent by deed or silence that its employee’s leave had been approved, the California Court of Appeal has affirmed a judgment in favor of an employer under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and the California Family Rights Act, and has rejected the employee’s claim that the employer was prevented from denying the leave and terminating the employee for failing to report for work when directed. Olofsson v. Mission Linen Supply, No. A131471 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 13, 2012). However, noting that the employer’s denial of leave ultimately rested on the employee’s failure to meet the 1,250-hour threshold for FMLA/CFRA eligibility, the Court noted that if the employer had made its eligibility determination earlier than it did, litigation could have been avoided.

Background

Lars Olofsson worked as a truck driver for Mission Linen Supply. In June 2004, he learned that his mother, who lived in Sweden, required surgery on July 5, 2004, and she wanted him to care for her after her discharge from the hospital on July 12th. On June 14th, Olofsson spoke with plant manager Jack Anderson, Sr., and requested family leave to care for his mother after her surgery. Anderson told Olofsson that he could take the leave, but needed to fill out an application and submit a physician’s certification. 

Thereafter, Olofsson obtained the forms from Ruth Clark, the company’s payroll clerk, and returned the leave application to her on June 21st. Olofsson had checked the box on the application indicating he was eligible for leave based on his conversation with Anderson. Clark covered up with a liquid correction fluid the check mark and told Olofsson that it did not matter what Anderson said, Mission Linen’s Human Resources department needed to approve the request. Olofsson responded that “he didn’t care. He was going anyway.”

For two weeks beginning on June 21st, Olofsson trained another driver to cover his route while he was away. During that same period, Mission Linen was reviewing its time records to determine Olofsson’s eligibility for leave.

On June 30, Olofsson submitted a letter to Clark from his mother’s physician regarding the surgery. However, Mission Linen questioned the letter’s validity because it did not indicate that it came from a doctor’s office. On July 2nd Olofsson was asked to submit the government medical certification form and he did so on July 9th. Later the same day, Olofsson was informed that his leave request was denied because he failed to satisfy the FMLA’s 1,250-hour requirement and that he would be terminated if he failed to return to work on July 15th. Olofsson left for Sweden on July 10th. He did not return to work on July 15th and was subsequently terminated.

Olofsson sued Mission Linen for wrongful termination in violation of public policy and for retaliation for having exercised his rights under federal and state leave laws. He also asserted that Mission Linen was estopped to assert he did not qualify for family leave because the company did not inform him that leave was denied until after his mother had her surgery. The trial court bifurcated the trial of the equitable estoppel issue and entered judgment for Mission Linen. Olofsson appealed.

Applicable Law

California’s Moore-Brown-Roberti Family Rights Act (“CFRA”) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act require that employers grant a leave of absence to an employee if the employee worked 1,250 hours in the year before taking leave, and the leave is for a permitted reason, such as to care for a family member who has a serious health condition. 

Under the CFRA, an employer may require that employees provide at least 30 days’ advance notice before the leave is to commence, if the need for leave is for a planned medical treatment of a family member’s serious health condition. Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7297.4(a)(2). An employer must respond to a leave request “as soon as practicable and in any event no later than ten calendar days after receiving the request,” and may require that a request for a family member’s serious health condition be supported by a certification from the health care provider for that member. Such certification must be submitted within 15 calendar days of the employer’s request. 

To apply the doctrine of equitable estoppel, a party must establish the following four elements: (1) the party to be estopped must be apprised of the facts; (2) that party must intend that his or her conduct shall be acted upon, or must act in such a way that the party asserting the estoppel had a right to believe it was so intended; (3) the party advancing the estoppel must be ignorant of the true state of facts; and (4) he or she must rely on the other party’s conduct to his or her injury. 

Estoppel Claim Rejected

Olofsson argued to the appellate court that Mission Linen misrepresented by deed that his leave had been approved because it asked Olofsson to train a replacement driver to cover his route while he was away. The Court, however, did not “see it this way.” It noted that Olofsson was asked to train another driver in the event the leave was approved, not because the leave was approved.

Olofsson next argued that Mission Linen was estopped from denying the leave because it failed to respond to his request for leave within 10 calendar days. The Court found that, although the CFRA requires an employer to respond within 10 days, it does not require an employer to grant or deny a request within 10 days because an employer might not have all of the information to do so. Mission Linen had responded to Olofsson’s leave request multiple times. On June 14th, it responded by telling Olofsson he needed to complete the application and get a medical certification. On June 21st, Mission Linen again responded when Clark told Olofsson that approval had to come from HR and could not check the eligibility box himself. The Court noted that Olofsson clearly “got the message” because he told Clark he was going regardless of whether the company approved his leave. 

On June 30th, more than 15 days after the company’s initial request for a medical certification, Olofsson turned in an insufficient letter from his mother’s doctor. Because the letter raised legitimate concerns, the Court said, Mission Linen asked Olofsson to have the doctor complete the government certification form. Although Mission Linen ultimately denied the request based on Olofsson’s eligibility and not the medical certification, the Court concluded that there was nothing about Mission Linen’s series of actions that could have directed Olofsson to believe his request for leave had been granted. The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

The Court commented in a footnote that it was “troubled” by the employer’s delay in determining Olofsson’s eligibility. It noted that, had Mission Linen calculated Olofsson’s eligibility within the initial 10-day response period, his ineligibility would have been apparent and the litigation likely would have been avoided.

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Although this case was a win for the employer, employers are reminded it is important to determine the threshold question of the employee’s eligibility when an employee submits a request for family or medical leave.