Certification and Privacy under California Famly Rights Act

California Family Rights Act (CFRA), an equivalent of the federal FMLA legislation, allows qualifying employees to take up to 12 weeks of time off work when suffering from serious medical condition. Generally, and employer does not have to trust the employee’s word that he or she is or has been ill and thus unable to come to work, and the employer has the right to insist on having a medical certification to that effect.

However, some employer require the employer or the medical provider to disclose details of the medical condition of the employee who is seeking to take leave of absence under CFRA. In most cases, it is unlawful for an employer to require disclosure of such information, and disciplining or terminating employee for failure to disclose such information is no defense to CFRA discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination claims.

The California Supreme Court has recently clarified the obligation and limitation on medical certifications that employers are entitled to obtain under CFRA in Lonicki v. Sutter Health Cent. 43 Cal.4th 201 (2008). The court looked closely at the language of the applicable legislation – specifically, California Government Code 12945(k)(1) and noted that by stating that an employee’s certification “shall be sufficient” if (a) it contains the commencement date of the employee’s health condition began, (b) the “probable duration of the condition,” and (c) a statement that the condition renders the employee unable to do the job, subdivision (k)(1) of section 12945 limits the type of information that an employer can require an employee to provide in a certification. For example, an employer may not require an employee seeking medical leave to provide detailed intimate and private information about a serious psychiatric condition that has made the employee unable to do the work, nor may the employer deny the employee’s request for medical leave for failing to provide such information. This law also limits an employer’s right, in litigation arising out of an employee’s medical leave request, to claim that the employer acted reasonably because the information provided by the employee was inadequate.

Thus, if an employer fires an employee who has given the employer a legally valid certification for medical leave, and the employee then sues for violation of the CFRA, the employer may not defend the suit by asserting that the employee, when requesting leave, provided insufficient evidence that the employee fell within the provisions of the CFRA.