Tuesday, February 18, 2003
Divided Ninth Circuit Panel Adopts Narrow View of Family Leave Act
By ROBERT GREENE, Associate Editor
California’s law requiring employers to grant time off for workers caring for ill family members did not protect a man who left work to accompany his wife, an invalid with a serious heart condition, to her father’s funeral, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
A manufacturer of industrial dampers and louvers gave Arnulfo Gradilla permission to take his wife to Mexico but fired him for not showing up for an unexpected mandatory overtime on a Saturday. The Ninth Circuit said he was not protected by the California Family Rights Act because his wife did not have to go to Mexico.
“The scope of the CFRA does not include a requirement that an employer must accommodate an employee whose spouse decides, in spite of her serious medical condition, to travel away from her home for reasons unrelated to her medical condition,” Senior Judge Edward Leavy wrote for the three-judge panel.
Gradilla’s wife’s condition was exacerbated by stress, and Gradilla had to keep her in Mexico a while longer than expected while he cared for her, kept her calm and administered the proper medication.
But the court said that extending the leave law to cover Gradilla’s situation would mean employers would have to allow time off whenever an ill family member wanted help while traveling.
“The travel could be for unlimited personal reasons, to any destination, for lawful and unlawful purposes, for business or vacation,” Leavy said. “Courts would then have to decide, in each case, the worthiness of the family member’s travel motives. Such a broad scope finds no support in the statute, regulations or case law.”
The court also rejected Gradilla’s claim that he was fired out of retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim the same day he left for Mexico.
The opinion was joined by Judge Stephen S. Trott who, like Leavy, is a Republican appointed to the court by President Reagan. The opinion drew a blistering dissent from Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Democrat and a Carter appointee.
“This case exemplifies compassionless conservatism,” Reinhardt wrote, treating a statute “designed to afford a minimal amount of humane and decent treatment to working people with families, as if it were a rigid code intended to limit their rights.”
Reinhardt said the majority made too little of the fact that Gradilla was in the company office, seeking permission to see a doctor for shoulder pain, when he got word that his father-in-law had died and that his wife needed him.
“The majority simply washes its hands of the employer’s unconscionable treatment of a low-income worker struggling to take care of a seriously ill wife—precisely the sort of person the California Family Rights Act was designed to protect—and creates a wholly baseless limitation on the statute that benefits the undeserving corporate employer and deprives Gradilla of the Act’s protection,” Reinhardt said.
“Under the limitation conjured up by the majority, the statute does not apply to Gradilla because the funeral his seriously ill spouse had to attend was in her father’s hometown instead of in the city in which the corporate employer’s plant is located. There is simply no basis in law or precedent for such an uncharitable reading of the act.”
The California Family Rights Act bars employers from denying worker requests for up to 12 weeks off in any 12-month period for family care and medical leave, including leave to “care for a parent or spouse who has a serious medical condition.”
Gradilla worked for four years as a sheet metal assembler for Ruskin Manufacturing in the Riverside County city of Mira Loma.
On Wednesday, Oct. 20, 1999, as he was in the office seeking permission to see a doctor, he got a call from his wife about her father’s death in a car accident and her need for him to go with her to the funeral.
Gradilla’s supervisor gave him permission to leave, so Gradilla went straight to the airport. From there, he called his employer to say he would be back in two or three days. His son later called and said he would be back on Monday. In Mexico, Gradilla was on a ranch with no telephone so he did not call in again.
Meanwhile, Ruskin scheduled a mandatory overtime day for the weekend, meaning that when Gradilla returned to work on Monday, as he said he would, he had missed not two days of work but three.
The company had a policy that if an employee does not show up or call for three days, he is fired. Citing that policy, Ruskin fired Gradilla. His lawsuit was transferred to federal court based on diversity jurisdiction, and U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips of the Central District of California granted Ruskin’s motion for summary judgment.
Leavy acknowledged that traveling with an ill spouse to Mexico for a funeral was “sympathetic, unfortunate, and lawful.” But that was not enough, he said, under the CFRA.
The case is Gradilla v. Ruskin Manufacturing, 01-56725.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company