What is a disability? And when are employers on notice to provide employees leave? These were some of the questions raised in the California Court of Appeals (Second Appellate District) November 15, 2016 decision, Soria v. Univision Radio Los Angeles, Inc.
Sofia Soria, a former DJ at Univision Radio Los Angeles Inc. (“Univision”), filed suit against Univision, primarily alleging disability discrimination, failure to accommodate disability, failure to engage in the interactive process under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and interference with California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”) rights. Soria was diagnosed with a potentially cancerous stomach tumor in late 2010. In late 2011, she allegedly gave multiple notices of her condition to Univision and missed some work due to medical appointments. In December 2011, after Soria allegedly told her supervisor that she may need surgery, she was terminated.
The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of Univision, but the California Court of Appeals (the “Court”) disagreed, finding there were factual disputes which the Court could not resolve. Some of the key disability and leave related findings include:
First, at issue was whether Soria was “disabled,” even though her tumor was asymptomatic and arguably did not itself interfere with her work. However, the Court found that Soria’s action of seeking medical treatment, which at times resulted in tardiness or absence from work, did interfere with work; and work is a major life activity for FEHA purposes. Thus, Soria was potentially disabled for purposes of California law.
Second, the Court found that Soria’s termination could have been discriminatory based on, (1) her alleged disclosure of the tumor and need for surgery was close in time with her termination; (2) her tardiness had been a problem throughout her employment, including many years prior to the alleged incidents; and (3) Univision gave her positive performance reviews prior to the alleged incidents.
Third, Univision argues it had insufficient notice from Soria to trigger CFRA leave requirements because she did not provide information concerning the duration of the leave. However, the Court found that the employer arguably had sufficient information of a need for leave, which placed the burden on it to obtain details about the leave, such as the duration of the leave itself.
There are two notable takeaways from this case. One being that absences caused by medical appointments (rather than incapacity from the underlying condition) may constitute a limitation on a major life activity and support a finding that the employee is “disabled” for purposes of California law under certain circumstances. The second takeaway is that an employee’s failure to advise the employer of the duration of his/her leave does not obviate an employer’s CFRA responsibilities. If an employee alerts an employer of a need for leave, then it is the employer’s responsibility to obtain further details to determine whether CFRA applies.