Administration of FMLA Leave for Same-Sex Spouses Gets Easier Under Proposed Rule

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) has announced a notice of proposed rulemaking to revise the definition of “spouse” under the FMLA to make it clear that the FMLA applies to legally married same-sex spouses, regardless of where they live.  Before last year, the FMLA applied only to opposite sex spouses.  Last year, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in United States v. Windsor, holding that federal laws that discriminate against same-sex married couples are unconstitutional.  As a result of the Windsor decision, the FMLA’s provisions allowing family and medical leave to care for a “spouse” became applicable not only to opposite-sex spouses but also to same-sex spouses – so long as the employee requesting leave resides in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage.  This is because the FMLA currently defines “spouse” in a way that is tied to the law of the state where the employee resides.  The problem with the current spousal definition is that many states still do not recognize same-sex marriage, and even if an employee was married in a state that does recognize same-sex marriage, he or she technically is not eligible for FMLA leave (to care for a spouse) if currently living in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage.  This has resulted in administration difficulties for employers, many of whom would prefer not to have to engage in an inquiry about whether the employee resides in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage in order to determine whether to allow the employee leave.  However, employers who have decided that they will provide the same leave benefits to same-sex spouses regardless of the state in which they reside, run the risk of deducting from an employee’s FMLA leave bank if the employee actually resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage.  Because the FMLA technically does not apply to spousal leave for that employee, any leave allowed should not be deducted from the employee’s FMLA leave bank.  If the leave was deducted and the employee improperly was deemed to have exhausted all available leave only to later be denied leave that did fall under the FMLA, the employer could face liability for wrongful denial of FMLA leave.

The proposed amendment to the FMLA’s “spouse” definition eliminates this problem.  Under the proposed rule, “spouse” would be defined to include individuals legally married in any state (including common law marriage where recognized under the law of the state).  The definition would also extend to individuals validly married abroad if the individuals could have been legally married in any U.S. state.

The proposed rule has not yet been published in the Federal Register.  Once it is, it will be subject to a public comment period and approval process before it is actually approved and implemented.  We will keep you posted of developments in this regard.  Employers covered by the FMLA will want to follow these developments and, once the rule is finalized, revise their FMLA policies and practices to ensure that their FMLA administration practices are in compliance with the new rule.  The DOL’s notice of proposed rulemaking is available here.  Additional information, including answers to frequently asked questions, are available here and on the DOL’s website.

Proposed Amendments to CFRA Regulations Published

On February 21, 2014, California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing Council (FEHC) published proposed amendments to the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) regulations.  These regulations are intended to clarify some aspects of the existing regulations and also to adopt many of the recent amendments to the federal FMLA regulations to make the two acts more consistent.  The proposed amended regulations touch on almost every aspect of the CFRA process, addressing, among other things, length of service/eligibility issues, the certification process and timeframes for responding to employee requests for CFRA leave, computation of amount of leave entitlements, key employee issues, clarification of reinstatement rights, maintenance of health and other benefits during leave, retroactive desingation of leave, and the interplay between CFRA leave and California pregnancy disability leave. The proposed regulations make clear that same-sex spouses are covered under CFRA and make clear that the FMLA regulations apply to CFRA leave "to the extent not inconsistent" with the CFRA regulations.  Importantly, there remain some areas where CFRA administration will continue to differ from FMLA administration.  Among other things, pregnancy disability is not covered under CFRA and, therefore, a California employee who is otherwise eligible for leave under CFRA/FMLA will be eligible for up to four months of leave for pregnancy disability AND up to twelve weeks of additional leave for baby-bonding under CFRA.  The proposed regulations make clear that a California employer is required to maintain the employee's group health benefits for this whole time period (and not just up to 12 weeks).  Some other notable differences between CFRA and FMLA are that the medical certification and scope of permissible medical inquiry are narrower under California law than under FMLA, and the circumstances under which an employer can seek re-certification are narrower under California law.  The proposed regulations provide a sample medical certification that California employers can use.  (In this author's opinion, the proposed certification is insufficient as it relates to intermittent leave needs).

Employers covered by CFRA should carefully review the proposed regulations and consider whether to submit comments and/or proposed revisions.  The full text of the proposed amended regulations is available here.  There is a public comment period through June 2, 2014.  Comments can be submitted via email to FEHCouncil@dfeh.ca.gov.  There will also be two public hearings on the proposed amended regulations:  10:00 a.m. on April 7, 2014 at UC Irvine School of Law, and 10:00 a.m. on June 2, 2014 at the California Public Utilities Commission Main Auditorium in San Francisco.  For more information, see the DFEH website here.

Reminder:  FMLA-Covered Employers Must Post New FMLA Poster

In recent years, the FMLA has been amended several times, most recently in 2009 under the National Defense Authorization Act and Airline Flight Crew Technical Corrections Act.  While the most recent amendments relate to rarely used FMLA provisions, the DOL recently approved new regulations covering these provisions, and of even more significance to all FMLA-covered employers, issued a new FMLA poster effective today, March 8, 2013.  The new poster is available here.  All employers covered by the FMLA should begin using the new poster immediately.  For more information on the most recent amendments to the FMLA, see our prior post here.  Additional information relating to the new regulations is available on the DOL's website here.

New Decision Serves as Reminder of Pregnancy Disability Accommodation Requirements

Yesterday a California Court of Appeal issued its decision in Sanchez v. Swissport, Inc., addressing whether an employee fired after exhausting her 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave could assert valid claims against the employer for pregnancy discrimination and failure to accommodate a disability.  The court said yes. 

In Sanchez, the plaintiff employee only worked for Swissport for about a year and one-half when she learned she was pregnant and that she had a high-risk pregnancy requiring bed rest.  She informed her employer that she needed a leave of absence from February through at least her due date in October.  Her employer provided her with the full 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave required under California's pregnancy disability leave law.  The employer also allowed her to use an additional three weeks of accrued vacation, bringing the employee's total leave to 19 weeks.  The employee was unable to return to work at the end of that 19 weeks, as it was only July and she was not due to give birth until October.  Swissport terminated her employment.  Can you guess what happened next? 

You guessed it.  The employee sued.  Swissport promptly moved to dismiss the case, arguing that because it provided the maximum leave (16 weeks) required for pregnancy disability in California, the employee's claims for pregnancy discrimination, gender discrimation, and failure to accommodate a disability were invalid as a matter of law.  The trial court agreed and threw out the case.  Not so fast, though...the employee successfully appealed.

In yesterday's decision, the California Court of Appeal held that the trial court should not have thrown out the case at the motion to dismiss stage.  The court held that an employer's providing of the 16 weeks of leave for pregnancy disability does not automatically shield the employer from claims for failure to accommodate a disability or for gender/pregnancy discrimination under FEHA.  The court reasoned that an extended leave of absence (beyond 16 weeks of pregnancy disability leave) may be a "reasonable accommodation" for a disability required under FEHA, and that Swissport may have been required to provide the additional leave time absent a showing of undue hardship.  The case was, therefore, remanded to the trial court level so that the employee's FEHA claims could be litigated.

The Sanchez v. Swissport case (available here) is a good reminder for employers that simply complying with maximum leave entitlements provided under laws such as California's pregnancy disability leave law and/or FMLA/CFRA does not necessarily satisfy an employer's obligation to a disabled employee.  Employers who terminate disabled employees simply because they have exhausted statutory leave entitlements are likely to face claims for failure to accommodate and disability discrimination.  Employers should always engage in an interactive process with the employee at or near the expiration of the leave to assess how much additional leave time (or other accommodations) the employee needs and determine whether additional leave can be provided as a reasonable accommodation and without undue hardship to the employer.

Latest Activity from the California Supreme Court

This week the California Supreme Court was busy deciding whether to review some notable employment decisions.  In favorable news for employers, the Court denied review in See's Candy Shops v. Superior Court (Silva), the time rounding case in which a California Court of Appeal recently held that time rounding policies are permitted under California law.  Our prior post on the See's Candy case is here.   The Court granted review of Richey v. Autonation, a case addressing whether employers can assert an "honest belief" defense to liability on a claim under the California Family Rights Act.  In the Richey case, the employer had a somewhat ambiguous policy prohibiting employees from engaging in other employment while on CFRA leave.  An employee took a CFRA leave of absence, but while on the leave, engaged in his own self-employment.  The employer believed the employee was abusing his CFRA leave and terminated his employment.  The employee sued, the case was ordered to arbitration pursuant to an arbitration agreement between the parties, and the arbitrator found in favor of the employer on the ground that the honest belief defense provides a complete defense to liability.  The employee appealed, and a California court reversed, which is unusual given the narrow standards for review and reversal of arbitration decisions.  The court of appeal held that the employer could not avoid liability under CFRA based solely on an "honest" belief that the employee was abusing the leave.  The court held that the employer must produce evidence demonstrating that the employee actually was abusing the leave.  The California Supreme Court has now granted review of that decision. 

Finally, the Court this week granted review of Franco v. Arakelian, another case addressing enforceability of employment arbitration agreements in California.  (See our prior post here.)  The Franco court held, contrary to some other California courts, that PAGA claims cannot be compelled to arbitration and that the United States Supreme Court decision in AT&T v. Concepcion does not preempt California law on enforceability of class action waivers in the employment context.  The California Supreme Court has granted review in several similar cases, and this week's grant of review in Franco was on a "grant and hold" basis pending the Court's decision in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation.  Stay tuned for guidance from the California Supreme Court on these important employment law issues.

California Adopts New Disability Regulations

We recently posted about California's adoption of new pregnancy disability regulations, which took effect December 30, 2012.  On December 18, California further adopted general disability regulations governing accommodation requirements for non-pregnancy related disabilities.  The disability regulations took effect December 30, 2012 and are available here.  The new regulations are 23 pages in length and contain definitions of mental and physical disabilities, explain essential versus non-essential job functions, and provide detail on employer and employee responsibilities in engaging in the interactive process and providing reasonable accommodation.  The new regulations incorporate the broad disability definitions and standards set forth under the recent amendments to the federal ADA, making the analysis of whether an employee is disabled much more similar under California and federal law than it used to be.  In simplest terms, it is rather easy to qualify as "disabled" under California (and federal) law.  Thus, in disability discrimination cases, the pivotal liability analysis will focus on the employer's response to the disability, not whether the employee qualifies as disabled.  In short, almost any condition (save and except very minor conditions, such as a common cold or scrape) qualifies as a disability as long as it limits a major life activity in some way.  The California regulations make clear, like the recent amendments to the ADA, that mitigating measures (such as glasses or contact lenses) may not be considered when determining whether a condition limits a major life activity.  Additionally, where the major life activity of working is considered, a condition can be determined to limit an employee's ability to work even if the condition only limits the employee's performance of one particular job (as opposed to an entire class of jobs). 

While the new regulations are too lengthy to summarize in their entirety in this post, there are some interesting points worth noting.  First, the regulations contain a lot of discussion about considerations of transferring a disabled employee to a vacant alternative position as a reasonable accommodation.  This concept is not new in and of itself.  However, what is new is that the regulations expressly state that employers are required to give preference to disabled employees when filling a vacant position.  The only exception is that the employer is not required to ignore a bona fide seniority system.

The regulations also discuss the circumstances under which employers may require medical documentation to support a request for reasonable accommodation.  Interesting in this regard is that the regulations imply that an employer is not entitled to request medical documentation in every circumstance.  The regulations instead say that the employer may request medical documentation "when the need for reasonable accommodation is not obvious."  Furthermore, in situations where the employer seeks medical documentation, the employer must communicate its requests (whether initial or supplemental) through the employee (not directly to a medical provider).  California (unlike federal law) continues to disallow employers from seeking diagnosis information or any medical information not necessary to determine the need for reasonable accommodation.  Finally, where the employee needs reasonable accommodation for over a year, the employer may request further medical certification on a yearly basis.  The regulations do not allow requests for recertification at earlier or more frequent intervals. 

All California employers (in particular, their Human Resources or other personnel responsible for managing leave requests or accommodation requests) should review the new disability regulations to ensure that their practices comply with the standards set forth therein. 

California Adopts New Regulations Governing Pregnancy Disability Leaves

California's Fair Employment and Housing Commission recently proposed new pregnancy disability regulations.  These proposed regulations underwent rounds of public comment and revision, but were recently finalized and approved by California's Office of Administrative Law.  As such, the new regulations take effect December 30, 2012.  The new regulations are available here.  California employers with 5 or more employees are required to provide up to 4 months of pregnancy disability leave to employees disabled by pregnancy or related conditions and there is no length of service requirement to be eligible for this leave.  The new regulations detail the process an employer is required to follow in accommodating such leave requests, from initial certification through reinstatement.  The regulations also clarify how "four months" is calculated for purposes of identifying the maximum amount of leave available to full-time and part-time employees.  The regulations further make clear (based on a recently enacted California law) that employers are required to maintain group health benefits under the same terms as if the employee was actively reporting to work for up to 4 months, and that this requirement is in addition to any additional obligation to maintain health benefits during an an additionally approved FMLA/CFRA leave of up to 12 weeks.  The new regulations contain a great amount of detail and guidance for employers trying to manage this leave process.  Employers are advised to review the rules and their policies and practices to ensure compliance.

The FEHC also has proposed regulations pending on disability (non-pregnancy) leaves.  Those rules are not yet final, but are available here for employers who are interested in reviewing and possibly providing comment and/or proposed changes to the FEHC. A public comment period is currently underway through December 17, 2012.  We will post developments here.

Reminder About Employee Time Off to Vote

With the upcoming general election on November 6, California employers are reminded that California law provides employees with up to two hours paid time off to vote if an employee provides two working days' notice of the need for time off on the ground that he or she does not have sufficient time to vote outside of normal working hours.  With the polls open from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., most employees should have sufficient time outside of regular working hours to vote, but employers need to be mindful of the need to accommodate any employees who do not have sufficient time.  Employers may require that the time off be taken at the beginning or end of the employee's shift.  California employers are also required to post a voting rights notice 10 days before the election.  Notices are available in English and Spanish on the California Secretary of State website here.  

California Bill Seeks to Expand CFRA Leave

There have been many changes to leave laws in recent years, both under the FMLA and under California’s CFRA.  Proposed legislation recently has been introduced in California to further expand employees’ leave entitlements under CFRA.  CFRA currently allows eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of leave in a year as needed for the birth or placement of a child, or to care for their own serious health condition or that of a child (up to 18 years of age or an adult dependent), parent (which includes a step parent and/or person who stands in loco parentis to the child), or spouse/domestic partner.  AB 2039 seeks to expand CFRA leave to allow employees to take such leave to care for siblings, parents in law, grandparents, and adult children.  If enacted, AB 2039 will obviously increase employee leaves, resulting in additional burden to California employers.  This is particularly true because California employers covered by CFRA are typically also covered by FMLA, meaning they have to comply with both laws and their employees are entitled to leave under the terms of both laws.  Because FMLA does not provide for leave to care for parents in law, siblings, and grandparents, an employee who uses leave for that purpose under CFRA will not have exhausted their FMLA leave because the CFRA leave could not be concurrently counted as FMLA leave.  In other words, the employee could theoretically take 12 weeks of leave under CFRA for a parent-in-law, grandparent or sibling, and then still be entitled to an additional 12 weeks of leave under FMLA for a spouse or child.  This very scenario already exists in California where leave is taken for disability caused by pregnancy or to care for a domestic partner.  Differences between CFRA and FMLA on these two categories result in leave not running concurrently under these two laws in these situations.  AB 2039 would add further differences between CFRA and FMLA, making leave tracking even more complicated for California employers.

The full text of AB 2039 is available here.  We will keep you posted on the status of this and other pertinent employment-related legislation pending in California.

DOL Issues Proposed Regulations Expanding FMLA’s Military Caregiver Leave and Other Provisions


The Department of Labor this week announced proposed regulations that would expand the military caregiver leave provisions of the FMLA, and also create special rules for FMLA eligibility for airline flight crew employees. The proposed regulations would implement amendments to the FMLA set forth in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010.  The proposed regulations set forth the following changes to current FMLA leave provisions:

Military Caregiver Leave

According to the DOL, “The proposed regulations would extend the entitlement of military caregiver leave to family members of veterans for up to five years after leaving the military.  At this time, the law only covers family members of ‘currently serving’ service members.”

The proposed regulations would also expand the military family leave provisions of the FMLA by extending qualifying exigency leave to employees whose family members serve in the regular armed forces. Currently, the law only covers families of National Guard members and reservists.

The DOL’s proposed regulations also contemplate other changes to the military caregiver leave provisions, including that qualifying exigency requires the service member to be deployed in a foreign country.  The regulations would also expand the definition of “serious injury or illness” to include conditions that existed prior to military service but were aggravated by military service.
 

Airline Flight Crew Employees

According to the DOL, the proposed regulations would make the benefits of the FMLA more accessible to airline flight crew employees by adding a special hours of service eligibility requirement for them and specific provisions for calculating the amount of FMLA leave used, in consideration of the “unique and often difficult to track” hours worked by crew members.  Specifically, airline flight crew employees who have worked or been paid for not less than 60 percent of the applicable total monthly guarantee and worked or been paid for not less than 504 hours (not including personal commute time or time spent on vacation, medical, or sick leave) during the previous 12 months satisfy the hours of service eligibility requirement for FMLA.

For more information on the proposed regulations, you can review the DOL’s FAQ here.

So, do employers need to worry about any of these changes now?  According to the DOL, yes.  Some of the changes technically are already in effect by virtue of the passage of the NDAA.  The extension of qualifying exigency leave to employee’s whose covered service member is in the Regular Armed Services is in effect.  Additionally, the new requirement for qualifying exigency leave that the service member be deployed in a foreign country is in effect.  Finally, the expanded definition of “serious illness or injury” to include aggravations of pre-existing conditions, is currently in effect.  According to the DOL, the only military caregiver leave change not yet in effect (until the proposed rules are approved and implemented) is the extension of caregiver leave for veterans as opposed to current service members.

As for the FMLA changes pertaining to airline flight crew employees, the DOL is taking the position that these changes are also effective now, per the passage of the Airline Flight Crew Technical Corrections Act (AFCTA).

We will keep you posted as to developments with these proposed regulations.  In the meantime, employers will want to review their policies and procedures for compliance.

Editor
Cal Labor Law

Robin E. Largent is a Partner in CDF’s Sacramento office and may be reached at 916.361.0991 or rlargent@cdflaborlaw.com BIO »

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