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California Laws

Fired City Employee Prevails on Claim of Retaliation for Taking Medical Leave

Takeaway: Where an employer gave inconsistent reasons for the timing of and motivation for its decision to fire an employee, the employee was able to prevail on her claim that she was terminated in retaliation for taking medical leave.   

A Los Angeles municipal employee’s medical leave was a motivating reason for her discharge, a California appeals court recently ruled, affirming an award of damages of $230,000 to the employee.

The city employee was terminated nine days after she returned from leave in 2017. There was evidence of negative reactions to the employee’s decision to take leave by those who made the termination decision. While the city offered nonretaliatory reasons for the discharge, there were contradictions and inconsistencies in the city’s evidence related to the timing of—and reasons for—the decision to terminate the worker, the appeals court noted.

On Jan. 4, 2016, following her graduation from law school, the employee began working as a project coordinator at what was then the Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department (HCID) for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The employee was fired from this position on March 9, 2017.

The CSW was established in 1975 to promote gender equality in Los Angeles. During the employee’s tenure, the CSW was staffed by seven appointed commissioners. Among the employee’s duties were overseeing administrative functions and providing status reports; facilitating and implementing the commissioners’ programs and policy priorities; interacting with the public; and raising awareness about the CSW, including event planning and outreach.

Soon after the employee began her job, she started violating various policies of the city and HCID. She regularly violated the city’s parking policy to secure parking for herself. The employee also referred to herself using the title “executive director,” rather than the correct title of project coordinator. In addition, she improperly entered her work hours into the timekeeping system and failed to seek advance approval for working overtime, as required by city policy.  

In March 2016, a meeting was requested by HCID’s executive director and held regarding concerns about the employee. Following the meeting, the employee kept using the title “executive director” on official documents and continued to request and work unapproved overtime. She also continued to violate the parking policy.

HCID management discussed the employee’s potential termination 15 to 20 times in 2016. In mid-April of that year, the employee’s immediate supervisor wrote a positive evaluation of her, with an overall rating of “outstanding.”

The employee began seeing a psychologist in November 2016 as a result of ongoing stress due to the circumstances at HCID and studying for the bar exam. After five visits, the psychologist requested that the employee be placed on Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave from Jan. 10, 2017, through Feb. 28, 2017. The city’s personnel director stated that Los Angeles does not terminate anyone on medical leave.

The employee returned from FMLA leave on March 1, 2017. On March 9, she was informed of her termination. Consistent with city policy for at-will employees, HCID management did not elaborate on the reasons for the discharge. The only reason given was the employee’s status as an at-will employee. The employee subsequently sued for retaliatory termination, among other claims. The trial court found for her on the retaliation claim, and the city appealed.

Retaliation for Taking Medical Leave

The employee brought her retaliation claim under a provision of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act that prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee for taking a qualified medical leave under the California Family Rights Act or the FMLA. To prevail on a claim, the employee had to show that the taking of leave was a substantial motivating reason for her discharge.

The appeals court noted that the trial court cited several facts as support for its decision that the city terminated the employee in retaliation for taking FMLA leave, including:

  1. The timing of the termination.
  2. Negative reactions to the employee’s decision to take leave by several of the members of HCID management who later decided to terminate her.

While the city offered nonretaliatory reasons for the termination, there was evidence that such reasons were pretextual due to the inconsistencies in the city’s evidence related to the timing of and reasons for the decision to terminate the employee.

Some of the city’s evidence cited “commissioner’s feedback” as the reason for the termination, but three commissioners who testified at trial either failed to support or contradicted the city’s contentions regarding the bases for the termination.

Prior to taking leave, the employee never received any criticism for her performance or any negative performance reviews or disciplinary warnings. In her only performance review, she received an overall review of “outstanding.” The trial court was permitted to infer from this evidence that the city’s stated reasons for the termination were pretextual, the appeals court said.

As to the timing of the decision to terminate the employee, the trial court found the city also presented inconsistent and shifting reasons as to when the actual decision to terminate employment was made. The city argued that the evidence showed the decision to terminate the employee was made in September 2016. The trial court, however, concluded that the decision was made at a meeting on the date the employee returned from FMLA leave, and the appeals court refused to re-examine this factual finding.

(SHRM, 2023)