California Employer Should Have Engaged In Interactive Process Before Firing Employee

Prock v. Tamura Corp. of America, No. E054185 (January 25, 2013): In an unpublished opinion, a California Court of Appeal recently overturned the dismissal of a lawsuit where the employee was fired while on a leave of absence for temporary total disability.

Justin Prock was working for Tamura Corp. when he started suffering from “anxiety related symptoms” in July 2008. On August 20, 2008, his doctor prescribed medication for his anxiety and ordered Prock to take a leave from work until September 5, 2008. His doctor later extended the leave to September 19, 2008.

On September 15, 2008, Prock’s manager, Ongela Starks, emailed Prock to confirm his return to work on September 22, which was the next work day after September 19. Prock informed her by email on September 17 that he was having “issues” with his medication and was scheduled to see his doctor on September 22. Prock stated that he would let her know about the doctor’s recommendations after the appointment.

On September 22, Starks emailed Prock inquiring about his doctor’s recommendations. She noted that Prock’s absence on that day would be unexcused if she did not receive a note from the doctor. Prock called Starks to advise that his doctor was extending his leave until October 31, 2008. He was placed on hold by Starks, who returned to the line with Prock’s supervisor, Barbara Shoop. Prock was told that his position at Tamura could not be held open until October 31 and, as a result, he was fired.

Prock sued Tamura for wrongful termination, failure to accommodate, and failure to engage in an interactive process under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The trial judge granted summary judgment in favor of Tamura on the basis that Prock’s total disability precluded him from performing the essential functions of his job. Therefore, he could not be considered a qualified individual under FEHA.

In reversing this decision, the Court of Appeal held that Prock’s impairment was temporary and his employer had an obligation to engage in the interactive process. The court stated that “there is no conflict between Prock’s FEHA claim and his receipt of disability income, because Prock’s FEHA claim rests on the assertion that he was temporarily totally disabled and needed, as a reasonable accommodation, a further leave of absence in order to adjust to his medication and to be able to resume work.” The court further held that the company had an obligation to engage in an interactive process by asking Prock when he would be able to return to work and whether he would be able to perform the essential functions of his job upon his return.

According to Johnnie James, a shareholder in the Los Angeles office of Ogletree Deakins: “The appellate court's decision serves as a good reminder that (1) California employers have an affirmative duty to inquire as to what accommodation, if any, might be suitable—waiting for the employee to ask is a mistake if you are on notice of an illness or injury that might be covered under FEHA; (2) a further extension of a leave that truly appears to be short term in nature constitutes a reasonable accommodation; (3) managers and human resources professionals should have a good understanding of what the employee actually does so that they can accurately determine if the purported disability prevents the employee from performing the essential functions of the job; (4) just as there is significant overlap between the disability provisions of the FEHA with workers' compensation laws, there is also overlap with Social Security disability insurance that requires the accommodation analysis; and (5) some leaves of absence can and should be counted against the employee's 12 weeks of protected leave under the California Family Rights Act, so take advantage of it. The fact that the appellate court chose not to publish the opinion makes clear that there is no new law being made but merely a reminder of the employer's obligations under existing law.”

Note: This article was published in the March 8, 2013 issue of the California eAuthority.