• Antonina Lonicki v. Sutter Health Central: The California Supreme Court Interprets the California Family Rights Act
  • June 3, 2008 | Author: Linda Auerbach Allderdice
  • Law Firm: Holland & Knight LLP - Los Angeles Office
  • In Antonina Lonicki v. Sutter Health Central, issued on April 7, 2008, the California Supreme Court interpreted key aspects of the Moore-Brown-Roberti Family Rights Act, known as the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). It was a split decision for employers. The Court ruled that the CFRA’s mechanism for resolving disputes about whether an employee is qualified for leave – having an agreed-upon physician determine the validity of a leave request – is not mandatory, granting employers more discretion. But the Court adopted an employee-friendly standard for determining whether other work by an employee during leave shows the employee does not qualify for leave. The relevant inquiry is not whether the employee is unable to do her essential job functions “generally,” but whether the employee suffered a “serious health condition” that precludes her from performing the essential functions of the specific position from which she seeks leave.

    Lonicki was a certified technician for Sutter Health Central. After she was discharged for not reporting to work following a personal leave of absence, Lonicki sued Sutter Health for violations of the CFRA. Lonicki claimed that she was wrongfully fired because she was entitled to CFRA-protected leave for stress rather than the personal leave her employer had granted, and that Sutter Health could not challenge her eligibility for CFRA leave after it failed to use the statutory procedure to confirm her eligibility for CFRA leave.

    The trial court granted summary judgment to Sutter Health and the appellate court affirmed. The central defect in Lonicki’s case, the appellate court said, was that Lonicki had worked in a “substantially similar” part-time job at another hospital during her leave. Such part-time employment “showed that [Lonicki] could perform the essential functions of her job” for Sutter Health and thus was not qualified for CFRA protection.

    Lonicki sought review in the California Supreme Court on two grounds: one, Sutter Health could not challenge her entitlement to a CFRA leave of absence because it did not use the statutory dispute-resolution mechanism; and, two, a jury – not the court on summary judgment – should decide whether she could perform the essential functions of her job and thus whether she was entitled to CFRA leave.

    The California Supreme Court ruled against Lonicki on the first issue. The majority held that an employer’s failure to have a jointly appointed health care provider determine the employee’s entitlement to leave does not bar the employer from later claiming that the employee did not suffer from a serious health condition and was capable of performing the job. The CFRA sets up a three-step scheme to determine disputes about an employee’s eligibility for leave. First, an employer may require an employee to submit a certification from the employee’s health care provider that states, in part, that due to the “serious health condition” of the employee, the “employee is unable to perform the function of his or her position.” An employer who doubts the validity of the certification may require a second opinion from a health care provider of its choosing. In the event of a difference of opinion between the two, the employer “may” require that the employee obtain the opinion of a third health care provider jointly approved by the employee and the employer. If sought, the third opinion is binding on the employer and the employee. The Court concluded that under this statutory scheme, obtaining a third opinion was permissive rather than mandatory, and thus the employer’s failure to obtain it did not preclude it from challenging Lonicki’s entitlement to a CFRA leave.

    As to the second issue, the Court, by a vote of four to three, reversed the appellate court and determined that Lonicki’s work in a similar job “with nearly identical duties” was not conclusive evidence that she was able to perform the essential duties of her specific job at Sutter Health. The Court agreed with Lonicki that the relevant inquiry is “whether a serious health condition made her unable to do her job at defendant’s hospital, not her ability to do her essential functions ‘generally.’” Even though Lonicki’s performance of virtually identical tasks at a different hospital was “strong evidence” that she was able to perform her job at Sutter Health, because the evidence was disputed, the question had to be resolved at trial, the Court ruled.

    The Court rejected the appellate court’s concerns that stress-related claims would hamper an employer’s ability to manage its workforce, noting that stress-related conditions are covered under the CFRA and FMLA “so long as the condition is so serious as to prevent the employee from doing the assigned job.” Concerns about that fact should be addressed to the California Legislature, the Court suggested.

    Lonicki v. Sutter Health makes avoiding a jury trial over an employer’s disputed decision not to grant leave under the CFRA much more difficult. The Court did suggest that to avoid the risk of a lawsuit over an employee’s CFRA or FMLA leave eligibility, “the employer can resort to the dispute-resolution mechanism provided by both laws.” This route would require the employer to rely routinely on a third-party physician to make the decision. Accordingly, the pros and cons of this dispute-resolution mechanism should be carefully evaluated as an alternative way to manage the risk of litigation in this increasingly contested area of California law.