After an eight-day trial, a Southern California jury has decided that Chipotle Mexican Grill did not unlawfully discriminate when it fired a manager after she suffered a miscarriage and failed to return from a 12-week medical leave. The plaintiff claimed that she needed additional time off because of mental strain. The jury agreed that the plaintiff was suffering from a mental impairment, but decided that the impairment itself did not entitle her to additional protected medical leave.
In view of the lightening rod issues – a failed pregnancy and a mental disability – the case presented a tremendous risk. Because the plaintiff was a long-term managerial employee who fully expected to continue her career at Chipotle, potential damages were substantial. Most employers would be reluctant to place such facts before a jury. Yet Chipotle overcame the potential for a sympathetic verdict and persuaded the jury its actions were proper.
Are there lessons here for California employers? What workplace policies helped the jurors understand Chipotle’s point of view? Can those same policies help other employers avoid risk?
The First Thing Chipotle Did Right: Written Policies
Chipotle’s written policies regarding leaves were comprehensive and well-managed:
- Its employee handbook discussed employee rights and obligations in connection with a leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act.
- One of the obligations was the necessity of communicating with Chipotle regarding returning to work, and securing a doctor’s note verifying the ability to return.
- Employees are required to sign a written acknowledgement of their receipt of the handbook (and the plaintiff had).
The Second Thing Chipotle Did Right: Communication
At the time she started medical leave, Chipotle sent the plaintiff a notice (in language approved by the Department of Labor) notifying her of her eligibility for a leave. The notice expressly required the plaintiff to provide periodic updates on her status and intent to return to work.
When the plaintiff’s leave expired and she requested additional time off for mental strain, Chipotle agreed to extend the leave for five days to enable the plaintiff to secure medical documentation but ultimately the plaintiff did not supply the documentation.
Why Written, Well-Managed Policy and Communications Helped
Chipotle’s policies were tremendously important and, taken together, helped persuade the jury that Chipotle acted lawfully. The company was able to argue that the plaintiff:
- Knew of, but failed to comply with, her obligation to keep Chipotle notified of her condition and ability to work.
- Knew when her protected leave status started and when it terminated.
- Knew she was responsible for securing appropriate medical certification, but then neglected to obtain it, even after Chipotle granted her additional time off.
Keep the Workplace Working
California employers who manage protected leaves – which includes virtually all employers because of protected pregnancy and disability leaves – should ensure, as did Chipotle, that their leave policies are in writing and include information about employee obligations while on leave.
All employers should ensure, as did Chipotle, that employees receive an employee handbook and acknowledge receipt of it. Employers should retain those acknowledgements.
Of course, the facts in the Chipotle dispute are unique and a different jury could have reached a different conclusion. So ultimately, the most significant lesson here is that while terminating employees for any reason is risky, terminating them at the end of a protected leave is particularly risky.
In a battle that lasted over two years, Chipotle was at risk of not only compensatory, but punitive damages. And, of course, the nature of the success itself is unlikely to enhance the Chipotle brand.
Cook Brown works carefully and methodically with employers handling leave issues to make sure they consider all potential consequences when determining a course of action. And we always recommend that the best course of action is prevention. Employers should always consider how their actions and workplace policies will hold up in trial when under the scrutiny of a judge and/or jury.