SAN FRANCISCO -- In a ruling long-anticipated by employers, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that working at one job while on medical leave from another is acceptable in some instances.
The court ruled 4-3 that although an employee's ability to work at one job is indeed evidence that he or she is not disabled, the evidence is not conclusive.
"When a serious health condition prevents an employee from doing the tasks of an assigned position, this does not necessarily indicate that the employee is incapable of doing a similar job for another employer," Associate Justice Joyce Kennard wrote for the majority.
Concurring in the majority ruling were: Chief Justice Ronald George and Associate Justices Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Carlos Moreno. Dissenting, however, were Associate Justices Ming Chin, Marvin Baxter and Carol Corrigan.
In the dissenting opinion, Chin wrote that "common sense dictates" that an employee is not entitled to continued benefits while working for a second employer with similar job functions.
All of the justices, except for Moreno, agreed employers can challenge requests for leave under California Family Rights Act, which requires that an employer grant a medical leave of absence if the employee's health "makes the employee unable to perform the functions of the position" of their job.
"The statute expressly contemplates that an employer may, for non-medical reasons, entertain doubts about an employee's [medical] certification," Moreno wrote. He said the statute "makes clear that those doubts ultimately must be confirmed through second and third medical opinions."
The ruling lifts some of the burdens of disputing medical leave cases and gives workers the ability to prove to the courts that they are too ill to work.
In its ruling, the high court remanded a case involving Antonina Lonicki back to a lower court, where she has a chance to prove that she is entitled to medical leave under the state's Family Rights Act.
Lonicki, a sterile processing technician, sued her former employer, Sutter Health Central in Roseville, Calif., for denying her request for medical leave in 1999.
A physician approved her leave because of depression and stress related in part to an unexpected work reassignment at the company and additional stress on Lonicki following Sutter's designation as a level II trauma center in June 1997.
Doctors for Sutter Health disagreed. Dr. Michael Cohen, an occupational health physician, said Lonicki was able to work, especially since she was continuing to hold down a job at Kaiser Permanente on weekends, fulfilling basically the same duties she had at Sutter.
Still, the judges said that is not conclusive evidence.
"Plaintiff's ability, during the period when she was seeking medical leave from defendant employer, to work part time for a different hospital (Kaiser), doing tasks virtually identical to those she claimed she was unable to perform for defendant is strong evidence that she was capable of doing her full-time job at defendant's Roseville hospital," the majority opinion said. "But that evidence is not dispositive, as it is contradicted by plaintiff and her treating psychologist."
Attorney David deRubertis of Woodland Hills, Calif., represented Lonicki. Charity Kenyon of Sacramento represented Sutter Health Central. The case is Lonicki v. Sutter Health Central, 08 C.D.O.S. 4025.