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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Olofsson v. Mission Linen Supply: Court of Appeal Holds That Employer Was Not Estopped to Deny That it Approved CFRA and FMLA Leave

This decision is very fact-specific, but it is interesting regardless.  In Olofsson v. Mission Linen Supply (12/13/12) --- Cal.App.4th ---, the Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court judgment, holding that substantial evidence supported the trial court’s findings that the employer (1) did not misrepresent by deed that the employee’s leave had been approved; and (2) was not silent when it had a duty to speak under the applicable regulations.  

The decision does a good job of laying out the respective obligations of employer and employee under the CFRA and FMLA: 
California’s Moore-Brown-Roberti Family Rights Act (CFRA) and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) compel an employer of Mission Linen’s size to grant a leave of absence to an employee, and preserve that employee’s right to continued employment, if the employee worked 1,250 hours in the year preceding the leave and the leave is for a recognized reason, such as to care for a family member who has a serious health condition.  (Gov. Code, § 12945.2, subds. (a), (b), (c)(3); 29 U.S.C. §§ 2611(2), (4), 2612(a), 2614(a).)  The family leave laws also impose on employers a legal duty to inform employees of the conditions that must be met to qualify for family leave.  (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7297.9; 29 U.S.C. § 2619.)  It is undisputed that Mission Linen complied with these posting requirements.   
Under the CFRA, where the employee’s need for leave is foreseeable, the employee must provide the employer with reasonable advance notice of this need.  (Gov. Code, § 12945.2, subd. (h).)  Indeed, the employer may require that employees provide at least 30 days’ advance notice before the CFRA leave is to commence if the need for leave is foreseeable based on planned medical treatment for a serious health condition of a family member.  (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7297.4, subd. (a)(2).) Further, if the need for leave is foreseeable due to a planned medical treatment or supervision, the employee must make a reasonable effort to schedule the treatment or supervision to avoid disruption to the employer’s operations, subject to approval of the health care provider.  (Ibid.)  It is undisputed that Olofsson knew that July and August were the busiest months for Mission Linen.   
The employee must “provide at least verbal notice sufficient to make the employer aware that the employee needs CFRA-qualifying leave, and the anticipated timing and duration of the leave.”  (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7297.4, subd. (a)(1).)  The employer in turn is charged with responding to the leave request “as soon as practicable and in any event no later than ten calendar days after receiving the request.”  (Id., subd. (a)(6).)  
Additionally, under the CFRA and implementing regulations, an employer may require that an employee’s leave request for a family member’s serious health condition be supported by a certification from the health care provider for that member.  (Gov. Code, § 12945.2, subd. (j)(1); Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7297.4, subd. (b)(1).)  As well, the employer may require that the employee provide such certification within 15 calendar days of the employer’s request.  (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 2, § 7297.4, subd. (b)(3).)
Slip op. at 1-2.

On June 14, 2004, Lars Olofsson
asked his employer for seven weeks off, starting July 12, to care for his mother after surgery. On July 9, after much back-and-forth, Mission Linen rejected the request because Olofsson did not meet the 1,250-hour requirement.  Olofsson sued for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. In a bifurcated trial, the trial court held that Mission Linen was not estopped to deny that it had approved Olofsson's leave.   

The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that substantial evidence supported the trial court's findings. In particular, the fact that Mission Linen had Olofsson train a replacement driver to assume his duties while he was out did not estop if from denying that it approved the leave.  Slip op. at 7-8. Nor did Mission Linen's failure to approve or deny the leave within ten days of Olofsson's request support an estoppel claim.  
Slip op. at 8-12. 
Here Mission Linen first responded by telling Olofsson what he had to do—fill out a form and get medical certification.  Next, Mission Linen responded when Clark told Olofsson that approval had to come from HR, he could not assume the leave had been approved, and could not check the eligibility box himself.  To underscore the point, she whited out his hand-noted approval.  This communication occurred on June 21, when Olofsson turned in the form, prior to the scheduled surgery and within the 10-day window.  In other words, Mission Linen responded that it was processing the application, and until HR said “Yes,” he was not approved for leave.  
Slip op. at 11. 

The opinion is available here.  

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