Timing is Everything: Pair of California Retaliation Cases Lead to Opposite Results for Employers
Two cases involving employees who were terminated shortly following protected leaves of absence lead to opposite results for the employers, with one case being dismissed and the other proceeding to trial. In one case, the California Court of Appeal rejected a bank employee’s claim that she was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for taking a domestic violence leave of absence. Rosales v. Moneytree, Inc. In the other, the United States District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that triable issues of fact existed regarding an outside sales representative’s claim that her employer terminated her in retaliation for her complaining about the amount of documentation requested to support her medical leave of absence. Furtado v. United Rentals Inc.
Rosales v. Moneytree, Inc.
Sara Morales (“Morales”) worked as a vault teller for Moneytree, Inc. (“Moneytree”). As a vault teller, Rosales had access to the vault and would provide cash and inventory to the regular tellers who interacted with the customers. At the start of each shift, the vault teller was responsible for verifying and balancing the vault’s contents by “fine counting” each bundle of cash, bus passes, stamps, and other inventory to verify they were complete.
During her employment, Morales experienced several instances of domestic violence, requiring leave. Moneytree granted Morales leave whenever it was requested without any negative employment consequences. Upon Morales’ return from her third domestic violence leave, Morales’ supervisor commented to her that she “can’t be doing this,” that she needed to “move on with [her] life;’ and that she was “too good for that.” Two weeks later, another vault teller reported to his and Morales’ supervisor that several bus passes were missing when he performed the fine count at the start of his afternoon shift. Moneytree conducted an investigation into the loss, and at its conclusion, Moneytree determined that Morales was the most likely perpetrator and terminated her employment.
Rosales sued Moneytree for retaliation for taking domestic violence leave under the Labor Code. The trial court granted Moneytree’s motion for summary judgment, and Morales appealed.
The court of appeal held that Moneytree had demonstrated that it had a legitimate reason for Morales’ termination – its belief, based on the investigation, that she had stolen the bus passes. Morales argued that her supervisor’s comments to her about the domestic violence incidents were direct evidence of discriminatory intent. The court disagreed and noted that her supervisor’s comments voiced “general observations or concerns for Rosales’s well-being” and did not display a discriminatory motive. Further, the timing of her termination three weeks after her leave of absence alone was insufficient to demonstrate pretext. Accordingly, the court affirmed the dismissal of Morales’ claims.
Furtado v. United Rentals Inc.
Carol Furtado (“Furtado”) worked as an Outside Sales Representative (“OSR”) for RSC Equipment Rentals, Inc. (“RSC”). During her employment, Furtado required multiple medical leaves of absence. Her first leave occurred from July 11 through September 21, 2011. On October 4, 2011, Furtado’s physician signed a note that excused Furtado from work for “medical problems” through October 22, 2011. Thereafter, the physician signed several other notes extending plaintiff’s medical leave, ultimately through February 29, 2012. Furtado provided her physician’s notes to RSC supervisors and managers. However, RSC repeatedly informed Furtado that the notes were insufficient to support her leave requests.
On November 10, 2011, Furtado sent an email to her supervisor and RSC managers, complaining about their requests for additional medical documentation. The email stated that she is “afforded some rights by [DFEH]” and reiterated that she believed she had already “provided sufficient doctor’s notes” to support her medical leave. Nevertheless, RSC approved Furtado’s leave through February 12, 2012 and informed her that, if she failed to return to work on February 13, 2012, her employment would be terminated. Furtado did not return to work on that date, and RSC terminated her employment.
Furtado sued RSC for, among other things, retaliation under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. RSC moved for summary judgment and argued that Furtado failed to establish a prima facie retaliation case because she did not engage in protected activity and no causal connection existed between any protected activity and her termination.
RSC maintained that the email from Furtado to her supervisors was a request for an accommodation, not protected activity. The court disagreed and held that the email was not a request for accommodation, but a complaint regarding the requests for additional medical documentation. The email also showed Furtado’s belief that those requests were unlawful because she specifically referenced that she was “afforded some rights by [DFEH].” Therefore, the court held that the email raised a triable issue that RSC knew that Furtado’s opposition was based on her reasonable belief that RSC was violating the FEHA.
RSC then argued that there was no causal link between the email and her termination. The court rejected this argument and noted that Furtado was fired only three months after she sent the email complaining about the repeated requests for medical documentation. The temporal proximity was sufficient to raise a triable issue of fact. Accordingly, the court denied RSC’s motion for summary judgment on the retaliation claim.
Before taking any adverse action against an employee who has engaged in protected activity, such as taking a leave of absence, employers should carefully consider the potential liability for a retaliation claim, particularly if the adverse action is close in time to the leave or protected activity.