Can employees be entitled to more than 12 weeks of medical leave?
Q: After 12 weeks of medical leave for a surgery, I suffered new complications and my doctor told me I needed to take more leave time. I told my employer I could not go back to work yet and submitted my doctor’s note. Three days after I was supposed to be due back at work, I was fired for job abandonment. Is this right?
A: No, it is not. Your employer had a duty to engage in interactive process to determine if you can be provided reasonable accommodation. Granting additional leave may constitute reasonable accommodation.
California law prohibits discrimination based on disability or medical condition. An employer may not terminate an employee based on the employee’s disability or medical condition. Disability under California law includes physical disability, mental disability or a medical condition. An employee who has a disability should notify the employer of his or her condition in order to obtain accommodation.
If a disabled employee is unable to perform his or her old duties, the employer must engage in a timely, good faith interactive process to determine if reasonable accommodation can be made for the employee. The employer must start the interactive process if the employee’s disability becomes known or obvious.
If the disabled employee was terminated, even though he or she could have performed the job with reasonable accommodation, the employer’s conduct may be wrongful. The employee, who sues for wrongful termination and prevails, may be entitled to the following: reinstatement, back pay, loss of future earnings, damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs in certain instances. Consider the following case:
Della Hill worked as an in-home counselor at Asian American Drug Abuse Program’s (AADAP) “sober living” home. Sometime during the New Year holiday of 2015, Hill fell and broke her arm. She notified her supervisor that she needed medical leave, and submitted doctor’s notes taking her off work for several weeks. During this time, Hill was also diagnosed with major depression. Due to her psychological illness, Hill’s doctor extended her leave until April 11, 2015. She advised her employer of her need for additional leave. However, on March 31, 2015, while Hill was still on her medical leave, her employer fired her for failing to return to work.
Hill sued her employer for, among other things, wrongful termination and disability discrimination. Hill claimed that her employer knew of her mental disability and her need for an extension of her medical leave, but that the employer chose not to reasonably accommodate her.
During trial, the employer argued that Hill was fired because the company lost some funding and that retaining Hill as an employee would have created undue hardship on the employer. However, expert testimony showed that the employer continued to have property holdings and about $25 million in assets. Additionally, the employer could not give a single example of any effort made to accommodate Hill.
The jury found in favor of the employee and awarded her $1.9 million in compensatory damages. The jury also found that the employer acted with malice, oppression, or fraud and awarded her an additional $2.6 million in punitive damages, bringing her total award to $4.5 million.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.comor our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]