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University May Have Failed To Engage In The Interactive Process
June Colby worked at Loyola Marymount University’s (LMU) Financial Aid Department from 1979 until her termination. On February 27, 2017, Colby went to the emergency room and reported symptoms of exhaustion, depression, and hopelessness. She stated she had not been able to sleep and had little appetite.
Colby’s healthcare provider gave LMU a notice of Colby’s disability in the form of a Work Status Report (WSR) that she would be placed off work from 2/28/2017 through 3/8/2017. Colby submitted a second WSR placing Colby off work from 3/9/2017 through 3/13/2017. Despite the short duration of the second WSR, Colby told her supervisor that she expected to be off work for at least two months.
Colby submitted a third WSR placing her off work from 3/13/2017 through 5/13/2017. On May 2, 2017, Colby met with Tracy Montgomery from LMU’s Human Resources Department. Montgomery informed Colby that her medical leave eligibility would end 8/28/2017 (six months after Colby’s first date of leave) and her employment would end if she was unable to return to work by that date.
Colby submitted a fourth WSR placing her off work from 5/15/2017 through 8/15/2017. On May 7, 2017 LMU’s Human Resources Department sent Colby a letter acknowledging receipt of the fourth WSR and LMU’s policy that leave eligibility ends after six months from the first date of leave. The letter also stated that if Colby is unable to return to work by August 29, 2017, she will be terminated. Colby responded and stated how upset at how LMU was handling her medical issues and alleging she was subject to a “hostile, racial, abusive, [and] demeaning environment.” She also stated she desired to return to work but did not know if she could return to work due to her severe anxiety.
On June 13, 2017 LMU sent Colby a letter stating her medical leave eligibility ends on August 28 and outlining several options: (1) she can return to her position, (2) she can return to her position with work restrictions and request reasonable accommodations; (3) she can request a personal leave of absence and move her return to work date to September 29, 2017; or (4) if she is unable to return to work with or without work restrictions, she will be terminated. The letter also encouraged her to reach out to LMU’s Title IX Officer/EEO to discuss her discrimination and harassment complaint.
On August 14, 2017, LMU received a fifth WSR placing Colby off work from 8/14/2017 through 11/14/2017. On August 30, 2017, LMU terminated Colby’s employment.
Colby filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Fair Housing (DFEH) alleging she was terminated due to her race, taking medical leave, her age (over 60) and because she reported LMU’s “unlawful actions.” On November 2, 2018, Colby filed a complaint in state court alleging claims of retaliation, race, age, and disability discrimination, interference with CFRA/FMLA leave, failure to accommodate, failure to engage in good faith interactive process, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The parties entered into a partial settlement agreement (PSA), where Colby agreed to dismiss some of her retaliation claims and the interference with CFRA/FMLA leave claims.
After extended litigation, the trial court dismissed the disability discrimination, failure to prevent disability discrimination, and the remaining retaliation claims. Three causes of action remained: failure to accommodate, failure to engage in good faith interactive process, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. LMU filed for summary judgment on these causes of action and the trial court granted the motion. The trial court found that Colby’s request for additional medical leave was tantamount to indefinite leave, which was not a reasonable accommodation. Colby appealed the motion of summary judgment, orders dismissing her original causes of action, and LMU’s motion to enforce the PSA.
The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that under California law, indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation as a matter of law. However, the Court of Appeal held that a jury could find it was unreasonable for LMU to assume Colby would continue to extend her medical leave indefinitely. The Court of Appeal reasoned that the mere fact that a medical leave has been repeatedly extended does not necessarily establish that the leave would continue indefinitely. The Court of Appeal stated that in some cases, the employer should directly consult with the employee’s physician to determine the employee’s medical restrictions and prognosis for improvement and recovery, and LMU failed to do so here. After receiving Colby’s fifth WSR LMU terminated Colby’s employment based on its six-month maximum leave policy, not because Colby requested indefinite leave.
The Court of Appeal also held that a jury could find that LMU’s decision to terminate Colby without further discussion regarding her likelihood of returning after the expiration of the fifth WSR (11/5/2017) caused a breakdown in the interactive process. As a result, a jury could find that LMU failed to engage in the interactive process in good faith. Additionally, because LMU conceded that Colby’s cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy is premised entirely on LMU’s alleged failure to accommodate and engage in the interactive process, the Court of Appeal held that LMU was not entitled to summary adjudication of this claim.
The Court of Appeal also held that the trial court erred in dismissing Colby’s remaining causes of action because Colby adequately alleged those claims in her complaint.
Colby v. Loyola Marymount Univ., 2022 WL 202787 (unpublished).
This case shows the importance of engaging in the interactive process with an employee to determine reasonable accommodations. Here, the court suggests that LMU should have engaged in further discussions with the employee about her prognosis and likelihood of returning to work before the University terminated her.