On November 13, 2012, the California Court of Appeal expressly rejected the viability of the “honest belief” defense in Richey v. Autonation, Inc. In Richey, an employer terminated an employee who was on California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”) leave because, during that leave, the employee was allegedly working at a restaurant he owned. Shortly thereafter, the employee initiated a lawsuit against the employer setting forth, among other things, claims for violation of CFRA. After submitting the matter to arbitration, the employer successfully defended itself against the employee’s CFRA claims based upon the “honest belief” defense which states an employer who honestly believes that it is discharging an employee for misusing leave is not liable even if the employer is mistaken. Objecting to the application of the “honest belief” defense under California law, the employee filed a motion to vacate the arbitration award. The trial court denied the motion, confirmed the arbitrator’s decision and awarded costs. Plaintiff appealed.
The California Court of Appeal expressly rejected the viability of the “honest belief” defense and found it was contrary to established California law specifying an employer may not terminate an employee taking CFRA leave based solely on the fact the employee is working part time at another comparable job. In further emphasis, the Court continued, “an employer may not, in terminating an employee who has been granted CFRA leave, defend a lawsuit from that employee based on its honest belief that employee was abusing his leave.” Rather, the employer must present traditional evidence justifying its termination decision such as the employee’s employment would have otherwise ceased regardless of the CFRA leave. Thus, the decision in Richey and the significant authority cited in support significantly weakens any discussion of the “honest belief” doctrine with respect to CFRA claims in California.