Employee’s Comments About Headaches Not Deemed Request for Medical Leave

By Joanne Deschenaux February 23, 2021
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An employee who said he was experiencing headaches and needed to follow up with his doctors did not make a request for medical leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), a California appeals court ruled.

Since the employee never requested CFRA leave, the trial court correctly dismissed his claims for interference with his CFRA rights, the appeals court said.

The employee worked as a technical support manager for the employer. When he began experiencing migraine headaches, he sent an e-mail to his supervisor requesting time off to go to the doctor, which was granted. The supervisor followed up by e-mail and told the employee to let him know if he needed anything else.

The employee and the supervisor had one more conversation discussing the headaches. The employee said that he might need leave at some point in the future, but only for a few days, and he never actually requested the leave.

About a year after the initial time-off request, the employee was fired for performance-based reasons. He sued the employer, alleging, among other claims, that the employer interfered with his rights under the CFRA. The trial court dismissed the claim before trial, and the employee appealed.

CFRA Interference Claims

The CFRA entitles eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave during a 12-month period for certain personal or family medical conditions. The CFRA's regulations provide that, for an employee to be entitled to a medical leave for his or her own serious health condition, the condition must cause him or her to be unable to work at all or unable to perform one or more of the essential functions of the job. An employee who takes CFRA leave is guaranteed that taking leave will not result in a loss of job security or in other adverse employment actions.

In a CFRA interference claim, the employee alleges that an employer denied or interfered with his or her right to protected medical leave. To succeed on a such a claim, the employee must show that he or she requested leave, the appeals court noted.

An employee must provide at least verbal notice sufficient to make the employer aware that the employee needs CFRA leave, as well as the anticipated timing and duration of the leave, the court said. Although the employee need not expressly assert rights under CFRA, the employee must state the reason the leave is needed, such as for medical treatment.

Merely requesting to use sick time is not sufficient to place the employer on notice that the employee is seeking CFRA-qualifying leave, the court said. A serious health condition under the CFRA renders the employee unable to perform the functions of his or her position, the court explained.

The trial court said the employee did not submit evidence that demonstrated that he requested additional time off due to his medical condition and was denied such leave. The appeals court agreed and affirmed the trial court decision dismissing the claim.

The evidence showed that the employee's supervisor recalled him talking generally about having headaches, that the employee said the headaches could be treated with medication and that his supervisor said to let him know if there was anything the employee needed. The employee requested time off only once to seek treatment for the headaches.

None of this, the court said, would have alerted the employer to the fact that the employee was requesting leave to take care of a serious health condition that made him unable to perform his job functions. The report that medication could control the headaches suggested the opposite. Nor did the single e-mail requesting leave reasonably raise the possibility that the employee needed CFRA leave, the court said.

He told his supervisor that he might need some time off because of migraine headaches, but then clarified that he would only need "a few days" for it, which did not suggest that he was requesting leave for a serious condition that made him unable to perform his job functions.

Choochagi v. Barracuda Networks Inc., Calif. Ct. App., No. H045194 (Jan. 28, 2021).

Professional Pointer: Although the CFRA allows an employee to request CFRA leave verbally, the CFRA regulations permit employers to require written requests as well as medical certification of the underlying health condition.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.  

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