Proving it still is possible to obtain a favorable jury verdict in California (see contrary evidence), a federal jury sided with Chipotle Mexican Grill last Wednesday in a case involving disability discrimination claims by former assistant store manager, Lucia Cortez.
Cortez alleged she suffered a miscarriage at work after years of trying to get pregnant, fell into a depression, and then needed extended medical treatment as a result. In response to her request for leave, her manager gave her 12 weeks of unpaid family medical leave. When Cortez later asked for another month off to “sort out a final doctor’s appointment,” her manager granted her one additional “courtesy week” of leave. Cortez then went behind her manager’s back and got her leave extended by another month by calling the employee benefits center.
Cortez failed to provide any medical documentation when she asked for the additional time off, while at the same time claiming that she might not be medically approved to return to work. When Chipotle informed Cortez that they were about to fill her position, she immediately asked to be put back on the schedule. Her manager refused to put her back on the schedule until she produced a doctor’s note certifying that she was able to return to work.
Cortez never sent Chipotle the required medical documentation and was thereafter fired, but was also told she could reapply for her job without losing any of her tenure or benefits. Instead of simply reapplying once she was able to return to work, Cortez sued Chipotle for discrimination based on an alleged mental disability and failure to accommodate.
Fortunately, the jury sided with Chipotle, finding that Cortez’s leave of absence and her alleged disability were not motivating factors in her termination. The jury found that her failure to return to work was the motivating factor for her discharge and that Chipotle had not failed to reasonably accommodate her alleged disability.
An employer can indeed require an employee to submit documentation from a health care provider, certifying that the employee is able to resume work following a medical leave (Cal. Code Regs. tit. 2 § 11091(b)(2)(E)). This case demonstrates, however, how complicated even a simple leave of absence situation can be in California and how easy it is for disgruntled employees to sue their employer – and to try to get a jury to second-guess the employer. The employer in this case no doubt incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs and attorney’s fees in successfully defending against this action – none of which can be recovered from the employee who justifiably lost the case.