California court rules in favor of employee who left work to care for terminally ill relative

Employer claimed employee quit because she didn't give a return date

California court rules in favor of employee who left work to care for terminally ill relative

In the case of a voluntary leave for good cause, only the clearest evidence of positive repudiation of the employee’s duty to return can show her intent to abandon her job, the California Court of Appeal recently said.

The plaintiff in the case of Johar v. California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board was working as a home improvement salesperson for Success Water Systems. With the sales manager’s permission, she left work to care for a terminally ill relative for around a week. Her employer decided that she quit while she was away, told her that business was slow, and gave her no new sales appointments upon her return.

The plaintiff filed a claim for unemployment benefits with the Employment Development Department and alleged that she lost her job due to a temporary layoff. The employer conceded that she left with her supervisor’s approval but denied laying her off. The employer said that the plaintiff’s failure to provide a return date or to otherwise communicate with her supervisor amounted to a voluntary quit.

The department found the plaintiff ineligible for unemployment benefits. An administrative law judge and the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board agreed with the department’s ruling. The plaintiff took the matter to the superior court, which dismissed the case without deciding whether it had merits and remanded it for further administrative proceedings. The plaintiff appealed.

Read more: Investigation into worker death reveals no compensation insurance

The California Court of Appeal for the First District reversed the trial court’s judgment. The appellate court ordered the trial court to calculate the amount of benefits to which the plaintiff was entitled if the department did not wrongly disqualify her from receiving benefits under section 1256 of the Unemployment Insurance Code, plus prejudgment interest.

There is a presumption that an employee who has left work for good cause has not voluntarily quit. Only evidence showing that the employee has positively repudiated her obligation to return in clear terms would overcome this presumption. In this case, the appellate court said that the presumption was not overcome because the evidence failed to meet that standard.

An employee has departed for good cause if she has left work due to domestic circumstances relating to her family’s health, care, or welfare of such a compelling nature as to require her presence. In this case, the appellate court found that the plaintiff departed for good cause since she left in emergency circumstances and with the employer’s approval.

According to the court, the plaintiff did the following:

  • discharged her duty to take steps to preserve employment;
  • followed the informal leave protocol established by the parties’ prior conduct;
  • previously notified the company of the prospect that she might need to leave work to attend to her grandmother’s health;
  • had the permission of her employer to take a break, without strings attached, for that reason in May 2019;
  • secured permission to leave from her supervisor when she was facing the same circumstances in October 2019.

When the plaintiff left, her contractual duty to show up for work and the company’s corresponding duty to pay wages were temporarily suspended, with the mutual expectation that those duties would resume upon her return, the appellate court said.

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