An employee who was discharged after seeking an extension of his leave of absence was a qualified individual entitled to proceed with his disability discrimination claim under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, even though he was totally disabled while on leave, where leave may be a reasonable accommodation of his temporary disability, the California Court of Appeal has ruled. Prock v. Tamura Corp. of Am., No. E054185 (Cal. Ct. App. Jan. 25, 2013) (unpublished). The Court found the employee’s receipt of disability benefits did not bar his claims where he also asserted he could have returned to work if given additional leave. It also found the employer failed to engage in the interactive process when the employee requested an extension of his leave. The Court reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer and returned to case to the trial court.
Justin Prock worked for Tamura Corporation of America. In July 2008, Prock began suffering from an anxiety disorder. His physician prescribed medication and ordered Prock to take a leave of absence from work from August 20 to September 5, 2008. Prock’s physician later called for extending the leave for an additional two weeks. The company granted Prock’s leave request and he was scheduled to return to work on September 22.
On September 15, 2008, Prock’s manager contacted Prock to confirm he would be returning to work on September 22. On September 17, Prock told her he was having issues with his medication and would see his doctor on September 22. He said he would advise the company of his doctor’s recommendations.
On September 22, Prock’s manager e-mailed Prock that she had expected him back to work that day and inquired whether his doctor had sought to extend his medical leave and requested the doctor fax her a note if that were the case. Thereafter, Prock phoned his manager and told her that his physician recommended an extension of his leave through October 31st. The manager responded that the company could not hold his position open until then and that he was terminated.
Prock sued Tamura for disability discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). The company requested dismissal of the case because Prock was unable to perform any of his job functions, was totally disabled and, thus, was not a qualified individual with a disability. It also argued that it had already accommodated Prock by extending his leave and that Prock failed to provide documentation to support his request for additional leave. The trial court granted Tamura’s request, and Prock appealed.
Under the FEHA, an employer may not discharge an employee because of the employee’s mental or medical condition unless the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job “even with reasonable accommodations.” In addition, an employer must make “reasonable accommodation for the known physical or mental disability” of the employee, unless the employer can demonstrate that doing so would “produce undue hardship to its operation.” Further, an employer must engage in a “timely, good faith, interactive process” to determine “effective, reasonable accommodations, if any, in response to a request for reasonable accommodation by an employee or applicant with a known physical or mental disability or known medical condition.” A “reasonable accommodation can include providing the employee accrued paid leave or additional unpaid leave for treatment . . . provided it is likely that at the end of the leave, the employee would be able to perform his or her duties.” Hanson v. Lucky Stores, Inc., 74 Cal. App. 4th 215, 226 (Cal. Ct. App. 1999).
The company contended that an employee who needs a leave of absence from work is not capable of performing his or her job and is therefore, by definition, not a qualified individual under the FEHA, and that a plaintiff who has received disability benefits is necessarily judicially estopped from asserting that he or she is a qualified individual under the FEHA. The Court called these contentions “faulty.”
Under California law, the Court explained, an employee who is temporarily disabled and needs a leave of absence to recover from the disabling condition may be a qualified individual. It also explained that judicial estoppel under California law does not automatically apply to bar an employee’s disability discrimination claim where the employee asserts that he or she is disabled for purposes of receiving disability benefits. At most, on summary judgment, the burden shifts to the employee to explain the apparent conflict. Jackson v. County of Los Angeles, 60 Cal. App. 4th 171, 178-192 (Cal. Ct. App. 1997).
Here, there was no conflict between Prock’s FEHA claim and his receipt of disability benefits, the Court ruled, because Prock’s claim rested on the assertion that he was temporarily totally disabled and needed further leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation to adjust to his medication and be able to resume work. “Consequently, the burden did not shift to Prock to provide an explanation of any apparent conflict,” the Court stated.
As to the company’s argument that having provided Prock a reasonable accommodation (leave of absence through September 22) as a matter of law, it was not obligated to provide additional leave because Prock failed to provide a doctor’s statement regarding his disability or a prognosis of when he would be able to return to work and failed to inform Tamura he would be able to perform the essential duties of his job at the end of his leave. Far from establishing the company had satisfied its obligation to accommodate Prock, the Court observed that these issues were “nothing more than the questions that Tamura should have been asking Prock as part of the interactive process.” Prock’s failure to provide Tamura with the information, the Court said, did not “absolve” the company of the duty to participate in the interactive process. Accordingly, the Court reversed summary judgment in Tamura’s favor and returned the case to the trial court to address whether the company violated FEHA by failing to engage in the interactive process to determine what further accommodations were required.
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The obligation to engage in the interactive process is ongoing and is triggered any time an employee makes a request for a reasonable accommodation, even if the employer previously made accommodations for the same disability. Employers should consider consulting with experienced employment counsel before terminating an employee for failing to return from leave and before denying further accommodations.