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Protections under FLMA and CFRA have limits, case shows

California is perhaps one of the most progressive states in the country when it comes to protections for employees. From minimum wage to guaranteed leaves of absence, the California code tends to rank very near the top for such benefits.

But there are limits to what an employee can expect and what they can push for. Where legitimate questions exist, it is strongly advisable for individuals to work with an experienced attorney to be sure that all rights are understood and protected to the greatest extent possible.

In matters related to taking necessary leave for self-care or the care of another, getting an education up front can mean the difference between gainful employment when the leave is over or possibly having to look for a new line of work.

A case recently decided by the California Supreme Court may serve as a solid example of the point. Despite some back and forth decisions through the various levels of arbitration and appeals, in the end, the court ruled that an employer's firing of an employee was justified, even though he had been on approved leave under the California Family Rights Act.

Here's how things played out. In 2008, the individual in the case hurt his back at home. He sought and received an OK to take leave from his employer, whom he had worked for since 2004.

Near the start of the leave, the company took pains to make sure that the employee knew that company policy forbade him from working elsewhere during his absence. But a few months later the employer learned the employee had been working at a restaurant he owned and fired him.

The employee sued claiming wrongful termination, but the company's action was upheld by an arbitrator and approved by the trial court. An appeals court reversed the arbitrator's decision saying the law had been applied incorrectly and the case went to the state's high court. There, justices reinstated the original decision -- noting that the purported error of interpretation wasn't enough to outweigh the fact that the employee had knowingly violated company policy against working while on leave.

The case shows the importance of knowing the limits of any laws protections.

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