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Agency Unlawfully Terminated Peace Officer After He Returned From Leave
In 2006, the Department of the California Highway Patrol (CHP) hired Stanley Vincent as a peace officer. Vincent, a native of Haiti, stood in loco parentis to his sister, who had paranoid schizophrenia. Vincent regularly traveled to Haiti to help with her care. In 2007 and 2010, Vincent took emergency leave from his CHP duties to care for his sister. On those occasions, CHP did not require him to fill out any forms prior to traveling for these emergencies, nor did it require him to provide any medical certifications.
On November 9, 2014, Haitian law enforcement informed Vincent that his sister had left the family home and was wandering the streets of Port-au-Prince. Vincent informed CHP Sergeant Eric Martinez that he might need to take an emergency leave of absence. The next day, Vincent told Sergeant Brian DeMattia that his sister was missing in Haiti, and requested a two-week leave of absence. Sergeant DeMattia notified Captain Mark D’Arelli that Vincent needed to leave the country to attend to family matters.
On November 11, 2014, Vincent left for Haiti. Over the next three days, two sergeants attempted to contact Vincent about his absence. One of the sergeants requested that Vincent come into the office to determine whether his request met CHP’s family leave criteria. Vincent did not respond to these messages.
On November 14, 2014, CHP labeled Vincent absent without leave (AWOL) when he failed to show for work. Six days later, Captain D’Arelli directed CHP to initiate an investigation into Vincent’s AWOL status. On November 25, 2014, Vincent contacted Lieutenant Mike Bueno from Haiti and requested an additional eight days of emergency leave. Lieutenant Bueno ordered Vincent to return to work immediately.
On December 4, 2014, Vincent returned to work and submitted documentation about his leave, including medical and financial documents that showed his support for his sister. CHP refused to accept or evaluate the documents and opened an investigation into “possible adverse action issues” for being AWOL. CHP later expanded the scope of the investigation to include charges of dishonesty and mishandling of evidence-based on misdated booking forms. CHP’s investigation substantiated all charges against Vincent but failed to mention that Vincent had requested family care leave before departing for Haiti. Based on the investigation’s findings, Commissioner Joseph Farrow terminated Vincent.
Vincent sued CHP for wrongful termination, and violations of the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) and Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). After Vincent prevailed at trial, CHP filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and a new trial. The trial court denied these motions, and CHP appealed.
On appeal, CHP alleged that Vincent was ineligible for CFRA leave because he did not stand in loco parentis to his sister. The Court of Appeal disagreed, finding that the evidence showed that Vincent provided for his sister, including financially, on a day-to-day basis for nearly two decades.
CHP further alleged that Vincent failed to notify CHP of his in loco parentis claim. The Court of Appeal disagreed, citing to Vincent’s notice to Sergeant DeMattia about his family situation before he left for Haiti. Sergeant DeMattia, in turn, informed Captain D’Arelli of Vincent’s family’s situation. The Court of Appeal also found that any lack of notice to CHP was the result of CHP’s failure to follow CFRA regulations and ask Vincent for more information about his parental relationship with his sister.
CHP also alleged that Vincent failed to provide CHP with the requisite medical certification for his CFRA leave. Again, the Court of Appeal disagreed, citing to medical documentation that Vincent provided upon his return from Haiti that CHP refused to accept or evaluate.
Lastly, CHP alleged that Vincent’s FEHA claim failed because he did not provide sufficient evidence that CHP intentionally retaliated against him for taking protected leave. The Court of Appeal disagreed. The jury had seen that the CHP’s investigation omitted the fact that Vincent requested emergency leave before leaving for Haiti. The Court found that this deliberate concealment supported the jury’s determination that CHP possessed retaliatory intent when it fired Vincent.
The Court of Appeal found that substantial evidence supported the jury’s determination that Vincent proved his CFRA and FEHA claims.
Vincent v. Department of the California Highway Patrol (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 31, 2021) 2021 WL 3878390, unpublished.
Employers must be proactive in complying with all requirements of the CFRA, including gathering sufficient information from employees as to their eligibility for protected leave. Here, the Court of Appeal emphasized that the employee had communicated about the need for his leave, but that the employer did not follow up.