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California Employee Fails to Show Enough Evidence He Was Fired for Taking Medical Leave

California workers have the right to take job-protected leave to care for their own serious medical conditions or those of their immediate family members under the California Family Rights Act. However, workers must give enough notice to their employers that their requests fall under the CFRA for it to apply. In Choochagi v. Barracuda Networks, Inc., Cal. Ct. App. Case No. H045194, the court considered whether a worker's leave request was enough to trigger the protections of the CFRA and whether his subsequent termination was retaliatory.[1]

Factual and Procedural Background

George Choochagi was hired by Barracuda Networks in March 2012 as a technical support manager. While he was in training, he was supervised by Hossein Ghazizadeh until July 2012 when he was transferred to work as a sales engineering manager supervised by Michael Hughes. Choochagi reported to Human Resources in May 2013 that Ghazizadeh had made inappropriate sexual comments to him about having sex with women in the office and that Choochagi wasn't "man enough."

Choochagi began experiencing eye irritation and severe migraines in Jan. 2014. He notified one of his supervisors, Scott Brooks, that he needed to seek medical treatment and needed time off from work. His request was granted. After two weeks, he met with Brooks again and asked about taking additional time off from work. Choochagi claimed that Brooks was irritated and expressed it would be difficult to get everything done while Choochagi was off from work. Choochagi claimed that he met with Brooks again in Feb. 2014 and was told that he was not a "member of the boys club". He was encouraged to resign, but he refused. He was subsequently terminated by Barracuda. Choochagi filed a lawsuit against Barracuda, alleging claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and the California Family Rights Act.

Barracuda filed a motion for summary adjudication on the issues or summary judgment on the case. Barracuda claimed that Choochagi was fired for poor performance and made up unsupported claims of discrimination only after he was fired. Hughes reported that Choochagi was unable to solve problems on his own and that he had transferred his supervision to Glenn Esposito to try to help Choochagi become better at his job as a manager. Esposito claimed that he noticed similar problems with Choochagi's work and asked one of his supervisees, Brooks, to begin mentoring Choochagi in June 2013. Esposito created a list of areas in which Choochagi needed to improve. Choochagi continued to be supervised by both Esposito and Hughes.

Brooks sent an email to Esposito shortly after he began mentoring Choochagi. He explained he didn't think that Choochagi was the right person for his job. Esposito agreed and asked Brooks to give Choochagi some critical advice about his style of management to see if he made any improvements. Brooks later created a draft performance evaluation for the year ending in Feb. 2014. He wrote that Choochagi had poor leadership skills, and the entire team agreed. Hughes and Esposito decided that Choochagi would be terminated, and Brooks called him a few days later to tell him he was being fired.

Barracuda argued that Choochagi had never asked to take medical leave from work and had not been denied. He had only sent one email stating he needed to take a day of PTO from work for his health. No other requests were made. Brooks responded to the email by asking Choochagi to let him know if he needed anything.

Barracuda also argued that it investigated the complaint that Choochagi had made about Ghazizadeh, that Ghazizadeh had denied making the comments, and Ghazizadeh was counseled about making sexually inappropriate comments in the workplace. Hughes, Brooks, and Esposito were unaware of that complaint, and Choochagi did not file any other complaints during his time at the company.

The trial court ruled in Barracuda's favor on its summary adjudication motion for Choochagi's claims of retaliation, interference, failure to prevent retaliation and discrimination, and gender discrimination. The case went to trial on the final two claims, including wrongful termination and disability discrimination. The jury ruled in Barracuda's favor, and the court entered judgment on June 5, 2017. Choochagi filed a notice on July 7, 2017, that he intended to request a new trial. He filed a motion for a new trial on July 17, 2017. The motion was heard on Aug. 25, 2017, and it was denied based on the statutory time period's expiration. Choochagi filed an appeal of the court's grant of summary adjudication and its denial of his motion for a new trial.

Issue: Whether Barracuda Interfered With Choochagi's Right to Take Leave Under the CFRA and Retaliated Against Him for Taking Leave?

Choochagi argued that the court erred when it granted Barracuda's motion for summary adjudication on his retaliation and interference claims under the CFRA. He argued that he was fired because he took leave under the CFRA due to his migraine headaches and that Barracuda interfered with his right to take leave. Barracuda argued that Choochagi was terminated because of his consistently poor performance, that he did not ask for leave under the FCRA, and that the company never denied his leave request. It also argued that Choochagi was fired for poor performance unrelated to anything to do with his taking time off from work because of his migraines.

Rule: Employers Must Grant Protected Leave Under the CFRA to Employees to Take Medical Leave for Their Own Serious Conditions and Cannot Retaliate Against Them for Exercising Their Rights Under the Law

Under the CFRA, employees are allowed to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave off from work to care for their own serious medical conditions or the serious medical conditions of their close family members. Employers may not interfere with employees' rights to take protected CFRA leave or retaliate against them for taking leave. Employees must give notice of their need to take leave, including the reason and the expected duration. Simply telling an employer that an employee needs to take sick leave is not enough notice that he or she is requesting leave under the CFRA.

Analysis

In California, employees who take leave under the CFRA are not required to disclose the specific serious medical condition for which they are taking leave or to provide a diagnosis from a medical professional to their employers.[2] However, they must provide more notice to their employers that they need to take leave to care for their serious medical conditions beyond simply stating they intend to take sick leave from work so that the employer is on notice that they are likely asking for CFRA leave.

The court of appeal looked at the trial court's order granting summary adjudication for the claims of interference and retaliation under the CFRA. For the interference claim, the trial court found that Choochagi had not presented evidence to show that he asked to take time off from work for his migraines or that Barracuda denied his request. Choochagi argued that he had presented enough evidence to overcome Barracuda's summary adjudication motion. He argued that during his deposition, Brooks said that Choochagi had mentioned having headaches a time or two and that he had medication he could take if he felt one coming on. He argued that Brooks knew about his migraines and that he raised a concern about who would manage Choochagi's team in his absence, and Choochagi had told him that he was not intending to take a month off. In response, Brooks told him that he could work with that.

The court found that Barracuda did not have any notice that Choochagi was asking to take time off from work to care for a serious health condition since he had a medication that could control his headaches. It also found that Choochagi didn't raise anything during his deposition that would have indicated that his request was for CFRA leave and that his request to take a single day of PTO off from work was vague and didn't support his argument. The court noted that Barracuda entered its employee handbook into evidence, which contained information about employees' rights to take CFRA leave. Choochagi did not deny receiving the handbook, and the court found that he had notice of his rights. The appeals court found that the trial court properly granted summary adjudication for the interference claim.

The court next looked at Choochagi's retaliation claim under the CFRA. In California, employers may not retaliate against workers for taking CFRA leave or for otherwise exercising their protected rights under the state or federal employment and discrimination laws.[3] To prove a retaliation claim, an employee must present evidence that he or she was a covered employee under the law, requested leave under the CFRA, took leave, and suffered an adverse employment action because he or she took CFRA leave. The appeals court found that Choochagi did not present evidence showing he had asked to take leave under the CFRA or that his termination was because he took time off from work. The court thus found that the trial court's grant of summary adjudication was appropriate.

Conclusion

The appeals court affirmed the rulings of the trial court. Barracuda was awarded its costs on the appeal.

Get Help From an Experienced Employment Lawyer

If you believe that your employer interfered with your rights to take leave under the CFRA or retaliated against you for taking time off from work because of your serious medical condition, you may have legal rights. You should meet with an experienced employment law attorney at Steven M. Sweat, APC for a free case evaluation. Contact us today by calling 866-966-5240.

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