Equitable Estoppel Claim Denied Where Employee Ultimately Deemed Ineligible For Family Leave

Employers shouldn’t have such a tough time figuring out whether and when an employee is eligible for a protected leave of absence under California law (California Family Right Act – CFRA) or federal law (Family and Medical Leave Act – FMLA). This case is a prime example of the mishaps – here unremedied – that occur when an employer doesn’t understand and accurately convey the law to an employee, leaving the employee, Mr. Olofsson, in an unfortunate lurch. Olofsson v. Mission Linen Supply (2012) 211 Cal.App.4th 1236

Mr. Olofsson worked as a driver for Mission Linen Supply. His parents lived in Sweden and he had previously received time off to visit his parents in Sweden. When he learned his mother was scheduled for back surgery, he asked for seven weeks off to return to Sweden and care for her. He made his request approximately one month before his leave was to begin.

In response, the company acted like he would receive his family leave after he submitted the right paperwork and everything was squared away. He was assigned to train a temporary employee to cover for him while he was out.

Three days before his leave was to start – with his mother scheduled for surgery in Sweden – Mission Linen all of a sudden told him that he was not eligible for family leave because he lacked the requisite 1250 hours of work in a year. No one had even suggested to him that he was short on hours, and there was no reason the company couldn’t have told him this earlier. Indeed, the law requires that the employer determine whether or not the employees have met the hours requirement “within a reasonable amount of time”. And state law defines this as 10 days, a standard clearly breached by Mission Linen.

Since Olofsson wasn’t eligible for family leave, he sued his employer for wrongful termination in violation of public policy and estoppel. Finding for Olofsson under one of these theories is the least the Court could do – but it didn’t.

The Court held that Mission Linen did not misrepresent – verbally or by its actions – that his leave was approved. The Court of Appeals here relied upon the trial court’s fact finding on this issue, and thus this case should not be read to establish a blanket bar against an estoppel claim where an employer leads an employee to believe that he is entitled to family leave. The Court went off on facts that could be its version of balancing the equities in an estoppel case. Mr. Olofsson didn’t submit his paperwork in the most speedy manner himself, and the paperwork he did submit had to be checked out.

The Court also found, in a somewhat disingenuous manner, that the employer’s duty to respond to the employee’s leave request in 10 days was met, even though the response wasn’t a clear “yes” or “no”.

What happened to the public policy claim isn’t clear from the opinion, but it couldn’t have been anything good for Olofsson.

Justice wasn’t served in this case where an employee lost his job because his employer put him in a tough spot – unfairly forcing him to choose between his mom and his income. Employers should do better, and so should the courts.

April 26, 2013 Jody I. LeWitter