Father Fired After Taking Leave to Care for Newborn Can Go to Trial

 

By Joanne Deschenaux October 23, 2019
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An apartment complex manager who alleged that he was fired for taking a legally protected 12-week leave of absence to care for his newborn child could proceed with his lawsuit against the company and his supervisor, a California appeals court held.

The employee's evidence, including inappropriate remarks made by his supervisor and the suspicious timing of his firing, was enough to allow his case to go forward, the appeals court said. It reversed a lower court's ruling dismissing the lawsuit before trial.

After the employee's wife became pregnant with their first child, the employee requested a 12-week leave of absence under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). When his supervisor learned about the planned leave, she voiced disapproval. The employee claimed she asked him, "Why can't your wife stay home and take care of the child?" and "Will you be doing anything or just sitting and watching TV all day?"

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: For what reasons may an employee take leave under the CFRA?]

During much of his time off, the employee was allegedly required to perform job duties and answer phone calls and e-mails. On the day he returned from leave, he was fired for supposedly failing to meet deadlines.

A written termination notice stated the reason as "misconduct in the workplace." The employee's supervisor testified at a pretrial deposition that there were several reasons she recommended firing him but that "one of the main reasons" was allowing a tenant to move in without a rental application first being approved.

The employee sued his former employer and his supervisor for violating the CFRA, and the employer sought to have the matter dismissed before trial. The trial court granted the employer's motion, and the employee appealed.

CFRA Claim Should Not Have Been Dismissed

The CFRA prohibits employers from firing workers for exercising their right to take family leave.

The defendants argued that the CFRA claim should be dismissed because the employee could not establish that he was fired for taking family leave. They pointed to pretrial deposition testimony from the employee's supervisor and the written termination notice explaining that the main reason he was fired was for violating company policy.

But, the court said, the employee had at least some circumstantial evidence suggesting the firing was prompted by his family leave:

  • Before taking leave, he generally received favorable performance evaluations.
  • His supervisor expressed disapproval that he was taking leave.
  • He was required to work during leave.
  • He was fired the day he came back to work.
  • He was not told until much later after his firing that he was let go for allowing the tenant to move in.

Furthermore, the employee said he allowed the tenant to move in without application approval only because his supervisor instructed him to and he feared losing his job if he did not comply.

A reasonable jury could conclude from the evidence that the employee was fired for taking family leave, the court said. Since important evidence was in conflict, the dispute about why the employee was fired must be resolved by a trial, the court concluded.

Villanueva v. Midpen Property Management Corp., Calif. Ct. App., No. H044066 (Oct. 4, 2019).

Professional Pointer: In 2018, the California New Parent Leave Act extended parental bonding leave to employers of 20 or more employees. This new law significantly expanded the CFRA, which previously applied only to employers with 50 or more workers.

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

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