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Employee Gets Benefits After “Leaving” Her Job For Good Cause And Not Permanently Abandoning Her Job
The Unemployment Insurance Code provides individuals with unemployment benefits, except when they leave their most recent work voluntarily and without good cause. The California Employment Development Department (EDD) administers unemployment benefits.
In late October 2019, Reena Johar took an approved leave of absence from her job as a sales representative with Success Water Systems to care for her terminally-ill grandmother. She was gone for about a week and a half. Johar would receive job assignments from her supervisor in the form of sales appointments, which required her to travel to a customer and demonstrate the product. Upon her return from her leave of absence, she received no sales appointments for many weeks and was told the business was slow. During those weeks, she was also issued a “final paycheck” and was asked to return some of her equipment. However, she continued to receive commission checks and was not told to stop communicating with prospective customers. Eventually, in February 2019, Johar applied for unemployment benefits and listed the reason for her loss of employment as a “temporary layoff.”
When EDD contacted Success Water Systems to request a written confirmation of this information, Johar’s supervisor checked the box for “voluntary quit.” This led EDD to investigate and learn about two competing accounts. Johar explained that she requested emergency family leave in October 2019 and that her supervisor advised that she could “return at any time she is able” to her job. Success Water Systems agreed that the leave of absence was approved, but stated that: the leave was not for an indefinite period; Johar failed to respond to repeated requests for a return date, and Johar was deemed absent without leave. The EDD ruled against Johar. The EDD held that Johar had indeed left on an approved leave of absence but then failed to preserve the employment relationship by communicating a date for her return.
Johar appealed this EDD decision to a full hearing before an administrative law judge. The administrative law judge decided against Johar again, stating not only that Johar’s absence was not approved, but that she also failed to preserve the employment relationship. Important in this conclusion was Success Water Systems’ assertion that their sales representatives must be licensed, and Johar had not rectified incomplete information in her licensing application.
Johar then appealed this decision to the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board (CUIAB). Johar entered new evidence that showed that Success Water Systems had unilaterally altered Johar’s address in her licensing application which prevented Johar from learning that her application was incomplete. The CUIAB again sided with Success Water Systems, stating that Johar voluntarily quit her job. The CUIAB did not allow the new evidence into the proceeding because the evidence had not been reviewed by EDD, the opposing party.
Johar appealed this outcome via a writ of administrative mandamus. The trial court denied her writ and dismissed her case. Johar made her last appeal to the California Court of Appeal.
The Court of Appeal narrowed the relevant issue down to whether Johar was entitled to unemployment benefits, or had been disqualified under section 1256 of the Unemployment Insurance Code because she left her most recent work voluntarily and without good cause. This issue is decided by determining who was the moving party in the separation. If the employer moves to cause the separation, the leaving was involuntary. If the employee moves, the leaving was voluntary. The Court of Appeal held that Johar had left her work voluntarily. She left work of her own volition to care for her grandmother. However, the Court of Appeal also held that this was for good cause because leaving work for circumstances relating to the health, care, or welfare of an employee’s family has been held to be a good cause. Success Water Systems had no formal leave of absence policy. Because Johar had received approval from her supervisor for the leave of absence, Johar affirmatively left her work voluntarily but with good cause.
However, even if an employee voluntarily leaves her work for a good cause, if that same employee manifests an intention to abandon her job while gone, she can be said to have been the moving party in terminating the employment relationship.
The test for manifesting an intent to abandon a job is whether the employee indicates “with the clearest terms of repudiation” that she will not be reporting to work. Here, Johar was silent in the face of certain communications, and at times indicated that she would respond to certain other communications “when the emergency ceases.” Johar was also never ordered to report to work, so she never ignored any such order. Finally, the fact that Success Water Systems did not make its expectations clear about Johar’s return from leave, the Court of Appeal could not use those expectations to evaluate Johar’s intent to return.
The Court of Appeal, therefore, found that Johar did not clearly repudiate her willingness to return to work. Because Johar had left her work voluntarily for good cause, she was not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefits under the Unemployment Insurance Code.
Johar v. California Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., 2022 WL 4139848.
This case illustrates the importance for employers to have clear, pragmatic policies, especially in relation to leaves of absence. Expectations for employees who take leaves of absence must be communicated clearly.