Medical Leaves of Absence
Recent Cases Should Serve as Wake-up Calls for Employers
By JOHN S. GANNON
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been around for more than two decades, yet human-resource professionals still consider these laws to be among the most challenging to navigate.
When an employee requests medical leave, employers are left to ponder a multitude of questions. Do we need to grant this request? What can we do while the employee is out of work? What kind of documentation can we ask for? How long is too long?
To further complicate things, recent legal developments prove one thing: ADA and FMLA violations are fertile ground for both class-action and single-plaintiff litigation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which is responsible for enforcing federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination, has taken aim at vulnerable employer medical leave-of-absence policies in two lawsuits. What follows is an overview of those suits.
Case #1: Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. United Parcel Service Inc.
In this case, the EEOC claims that United Parcel Service (UPS) violated the ADA by denying medical leaves of absence for its employees with disabilities. The lawsuit contends that these medical leaves were required as a reasonable workplace accommodation.
According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, since 2002, UPS maintained a leave-of-absence policy that “administratively separated from employment” any employee who took more than 12 months of medical leave. UPS did not make exceptions to this policy based on the employee’s job or the nature of the disability.
For example, one employee took a 12-month leave of absence from work when she began experiencing symptoms of multiple sclerosis. After the leave, she returned to work for a few weeks, but started feeling negative side effects from her medication. The employee needed another two weeks off to receive therapeutic treatment, but instead of granting her request for additional leave, UPS fired the employee, citing its rigid 12-month leave policy. Other employees were also fired under UPS’ “inflexible” leave-of-absence policy after requesting leave for longer than 12 months.
The EEOC filed a class-action suit alleging that UPS violated the ADA by failing to accommodate its disabled employees. The ADA requires employers to provide employees (or applicants for employment) with reasonable workplace accommodations, unless such accommodation would cause an undue hardship. Common workplace accommodations can include an unpaid, job-protected leave of absence, in addition to job restructuring, modified or part-time scheduling, modified workplace policies, and transfer to vacant positions for which the employee is qualified.
Once an employer becomes aware of the need for a reasonable accommodation, the ADA obligates it to engage in an interactive process with the employee to identify and implement appropriate, reasonable accommodations. In the UPS case, the employer did not engage in any interactive process to determine whether it could accommodate its employees. Instead, the employer administratively terminated disabled employees as soon as they exceeded the 12-month leave-of-absence high-water mark. UPS filed a motion to dismiss the class action last year, but its motion was denied by the court, and the litigation is ongoing.
Case #2: Equal Employment Oppor-tunity Commission v. ValleyLife
Last month, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against ValleyLife, a disability-support-services company, alleging ADA violations, once again linked to the employer’s leave-of-absence policy. The lawsuit claims the employer discriminated against disabled employees by refusing to provide them with reasonable accommodations after they exhausted their available leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.
The FMLA provides eligible employees with 12 weeks of job-protected leave for a variety of medical and family reasons if they work for a covered employer. According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, ValleyLife’s “inflexible” leave-of-absence policy called for automatic termination of employees who requested medical leave after exhausting all of their FMLA time. The EEOC claims that ValleyLife did not consider whether an extended leave of absence was a reasonable accommodation option and therefore failed to engage in the interactive process.
In one case, the EEOC alleges that ValleyLife forced out an employee who used up all available FMLA leave and needed another surgery. ValleyLife did not engage in any interactive process to determine whether any accommodations (including additional leave) were possible.
Another employee was unable to return to her job after her 12 weeks of FMLA benefits were used up. ValleyLife allegedly terminated her employment pursuant to its leave-of-absence policy without considering whether the additional leave would impact the business.
Tips for Employers
The EEOC has made it clear that an “inflexible” leave-of-absence policy calling for automatic termination after an employer-established medical leave threshold violates the ADA.
For instance, many employers put a hard six- or 12-month cap on the amount of medical leave available to employees. These policies will not pass muster under the ADA because of their rigidity. Instead, employers must engage in the interactive process with every leave request based on an employee’s disability to determine whether the request poses an undue hardship to the business. Often, a six- or 12- month leave of absence will have harmful staffing implications or impact customer satisfaction, particularly where the position is not suitable for temporary employment or backfilling.
Under those circumstances, the employer might be able to deny the request if it properly considers the business impact and discusses other options with the employee.
Denying medical leave-of-absence requests without careful consideration puts employers at risk of costly and time-consuming litigation. If you need assistance reviewing and analyzing a medical leave-of-absence request, you should contact experienced employment counsel for assistance. n
John S. Gannon is an associate with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., and practices in the firm’s Springfield office. Since joining the firm in 2011, he has defended employers against claims of discrimination, retaliation, harassment, wrongful-termination claims, as well as actions arising under the Family Medical Leave Act and wage-and-hour law. Gannon also has experience with lawsuits seeking to enforce restrictive covenants and protect trade secrets; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]