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Yesterday, we looked at a case involving an employee who claimed to want to return to work but submitted a note from his doctor stating that he was “totally incapacitated.” Today, the conclusion of the case, courtesy of attorney Nancy N. Lubrano of the Irvine office of Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP.
For the facts of the case, click here.
'Totally Incapacitated' Means Totally Unable To Work
Holley claimed that his termination was discriminatory because it was based on his physical disability. To prevail on this type of claim, he had the burden of showing that 1) he was terminated because of his disability, and 2) he could perform the essential functions of his job with or without a reasonable accommodation.
Holley couldn't satisfy the second prong of that requirement. Despite being offered a transitional position, he failed to accept the offer and didn't return to work. Instead, he submitted a note from his doctor stating that he was "totally incapacitated." The court agreed that the note indicated he couldn't return to work in any capacity.
Holley argued during litigation that the doctor's assessment was merely "prophylactic" and that he could have returned to work and resumed his prior duties. The court disagreed and explained that the employer wasn't required to defer to Holley's own (albeit after-the-fact) medical opinion, especially when it contradicted an actual medical opinion.
Holley's claim that his termination was in retaliation for requesting an accommodation failed for similar reasons. Simply put, his employment was terminated because after exhausting his leave and after the employer granted additional leave beyond legal requirements, he submitted a doctor's note indicating he couldn't return to work at all.
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While the note contradicted his earlier representation that he could perform the duties of his prior position and his request that he be reinstated, the doctor's note was deemed reliable and controlling. Thus, Holley wasn't terminated because he requested an accommodation. Rather, there simply was no accommodation available. Holley v. Waddington North America (California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, 3/15/12, unpublished).
While the defects in Holley's claims seem clear, navigating leave laws is no easy task. Indeed, there is often confusing interplay between the various California and federal leave laws, including the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the CFRA, California's pregnancy disability leave law, and the "Kin Care" and "California Paid Family Leave" laws. You must tread carefully through the maze of leave laws to avoid lawsuits.
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