California, like most other states, is an at will employment state. This essentially means that in
the absence of employment contracts (such as collective bargaining agreements) that indicate otherwise, an employers generally may fire employees for any reason, no reason and even unfair reasons, as long as they are not illegal reasons. Although it sounds like there was harsh treatment, it appears that their reasons may not be illegal (based on the facts given in your question). Still, I would suggest that you contact a California employment attorney to discuss the facts of your case in greater detail because if you suspect that the employer may have used your mental health status as pretext for terminating you or treating you differently from other employees, then it could be classified as discrimination (which is a constitutional issue).
Information provided in this response is intended to be informational or educational only. It in no way establishes an attorney-client relationship. Because every case is factually dependent, it is not possible to accurately answer each question posed. If you have sincere legal concerns, it is highly recommended that you seek legal counsel in your area. A response is not intended to create, nor does it create, a continuing duty to respond.
Unfortunately, employees have very few employment rights, and employers have a lot of leeway in how they choose to run their businesses. In general, an employer can be unfair, obnoxious or bad at management. And an employer can make decisions based on faulty or inaccurate information. An employer has no obligation to warn an employee that he or she is not performing as the employer wants. It’s not a level playing field. An employer hires employees to provide work for its benefit, not for the benefit of the employees. Don't expect the employer to take care of its employees; it doesn’t have to and it rarely does.
There are some limitations on what an employer can do, mostly in the areas of public policy (such as discrimination law or whistle blowing), contract law, union-employer labor relations, and constitutional due process for government employees. Please see my guide to at-will employment in California which should help you understand employment rights: http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/an-overview-of-at-will-employment-all-states. After you take a look at the guide, you may be able to identify actions or behavior that fits one of the categories that allows for legal action. If so, an experienced plaintiffs employment attorney may be helpful.
Given the apparent closeness in time between your medical leave and the termination, there are various sources of POTENTIAL protection related to your medical status.
If the condition is due to a disability as defined by law, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. sections 12101 et seq. (ADA) and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, California Government Code sections 12900, et seq. (FEHA) may provide some protection. Please look at my guide on the ADA: http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/employment-disability-protection-under-californias-fair-employment-and-housing-act-and-federal-ada and also on the differences between the ADA and California’s more generous FEHA: http://www.avvo.com/legal-guides/ugc/employment-disability-protection-under-californias-fair-employment-and-housing-act-and-federal-ada?published=true. The ADA applies to employers with at least 15 employees; the FEHA requires only 5 employees. These laws protect you from discrimination (adverse treatment) DUE TO disability and also require the employer to provide reasonable accommodation (change in the manner in which work is done) so you can do the main parts of the job (essential functions). A leave of absence can be a proper reasonable accommodation.
There is limited protection if the illness or injury is caused by a serious medical condition as that is defined by law. You may be protected under the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. section 2101 et seq. (FMLA) and the California Family Rights Act, Government Code section 12945.2 (CFRA) if all of the following is true: (a) your employer has at least 50 employees who work within 75 miles of one another; and (b) you have worked for this employer for at least one year all together, even if not consecutively; (c) you have worked for this employer at least 1,250 hours in the immediately preceding year; and (d) you have a serious medical condition as defined by the FMLA. The FMLA allows employees to take leaves of absence from work without repercussion, up to a maximum of 12 weeks per year. Leave can be in increments as short as fractions of an hour.
Please look at my guide on the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. section 2101 et seq. (FMLA) to see if that law applies in your situation: http://www.avvo.com/pages/show?category_id=6&permalink=family-and-medical-leave-fmla-summary-of-key-provisions. California’s CFRA is the same as the FMLA in all areas other than pregnancy disability and enforcement.
(continued in Comment below)
twitter.com/MikaSpencer *** All legal actions have time limits, called statutes of limitation. If you miss the deadline for filing your claim, you will lose the opportunity to pursue your case. Please consult with an experienced employment attorney as soon as possible to better preserve your rights. *** Marilynn Mika Spencer provides information on Avvo as a service to the public, primarily when general information may be of assistance. Avvo is not an appropriate forum for an in-depth response or a detailed analysis. These comments are for information only and should not be considered legal advice. Legal advice must pertain to specific, detailed facts. No attorney-client relationship is created based on this information exchange. *** Marilynn Mika Spencer is licensed to practice law before all state and federal courts in California, and can appear before administrative agencies throughout the country. She is eligible to represent clients in other states on a pro hac vice basis. ***