California Family Rights Act Interference Claims Proceed

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
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Moore v. Century Gaming Management, Inc., No. B249978 (June 4, 2014): The California Court of Appeal recently ruled in an employee’s favor in a suit in which she claimed that her employer interfered with her rights under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). According to the court, “the abundance of factual controversies” regarding the employer’s motive in eventually discharging the employee called for reversal of the trial court’s summary judgment in the employer’s favor.

Brenda Moore worked for Century Gaming Management, Inc. (doing business as Hollywood Park Casino) initially as a housekeeper and later as a shift supervisor and reporting to Ronnie Blackwell, director of housekeeping, and Patricia Boston, housekeeping senior supervisor. Century Gaming Management had a family and medical leave policy according to which employees must exhaust their unused vacation time during their family and/or medical leave. The policy also gives employees the option to take unprotected paid leave (e.g., vacation, sick leave, and floating holidays) instead of family and medical leave in which case the leave would not count against the employee’s family and medical leave entitlement. Blackwell and Boston were authorized to approve requests for unprotected leave. An employee who wished to have such leave run concurrently with family and medical leave was required to submit a request to Boston and Blackwell who would then submit the request to Sharon Wady, the company’s benefits manager.

In 2008, Moore’s father became ill and she sought unprotected leave, which she alleges that Blackwell and Boston denied. Moore spoke with Wady several times about the situation and about Blackwell’s and Boston’s unresponsiveness. Between 2009 and 2010, Moore took several days of leave and Boston and Blackwell denied several of her leave requests. Blackwell also issued more than one write-up to Moore regarding her performance.

In 2010, Century Gaming Management started implementing cost-cutting measures spurred by the company’s financial state. Blackwell claims that he decided to discharge Moore two months before he actually fired her in July of 2010. Blackwell claims that he decided to recommend the elimination of Moore’s position because she was earning more than housekeeping leads.

Moore filed suit claiming discriminatory termination due to her request for leave under the CFRA; interference with her CFRA rights; retaliatory termination for requesting and taking family care leave in violation of CFRA; tortious termination and discrimination stemming from her CFRA leave request; and age discrimination. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on all of Moore’s claims. Moore appealed to the California Court of Appeal, which reversed.

The court first considered Moore’s allegation that her employer interfered with her CFRA rights by denying her leave, discouraging her from taking leave, misclassifying her leave as unprotected sick or vacation time, and failing to guarantee her job upon her return from leave. The court examined all of the evidence the trial court considered in siding with the employer, finding that a number of them were disputed. Moreover, the court noted that Moore had provided testimony that her supervisors interfered with her right to take CFRA leave in the following ways:

  • She was told that she could not take CFRA leave until she exhausted her vacation time, and requests to take vacation time were approved by Blackwell and Boston.
  • When she would take time off, she received write-ups.
  • Her supervisor told her “You’re taking too much time off. We don’t have the staff for it.”
  • After she submitted her formal certification for leave, she was occasionally granted time off but claimed that Blackwell denied her leave on at least 10 occasions.
  • Blackwell would get upset when she asked for leave and suggested that she put her father in a “home.”

Based on this testimony, the court concluded that Moore had produced sufficient evidence that her employer had denied her entitlement to CFRA leave, discouraged her from taking leave, and took adverse employment action against her for taking leave.

With regard to Moore’s claim that her employment was wrongfully terminated because she exercised her CFRA rights, the court noted that Moore was fired the day that she returned to work from a CFRA leave. Considering that she had been employed with the same company for 12 years, the court found that Moore had established sufficient proximity in time between the protected activity and her termination. While the financial pressures facing the company provided the employer with a legitimate nonretaliatory reason for firing Moore, the court questioned the motivation behind her termination. The court noted that Moore was the only employee fired from housekeeping, which hired six employees in the months before her discharge. According to the court,

It is contradictory for an employer to state that it is terminating an individual’s job for cost cutting when it has hired several new employees within the same time period as the individual’s termination. And Blackwell’s failure to take into account the precise cost savings of appellant’s termination presents a weakness in respondent’s defense.

Moreover, the court found that “much of the same evidence which casts into doubt the legitimate, nonretaliatory rationale stated by [the company] in connection with the CFRA claims also shows evidence of pretext in the context of [Moore’s] age discrimination claim.” Thus the court ruled that summary judgment in favor of the employer should be reversed.

Note: This article was published in the July 2014 issue of the California eAuthority.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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