When can you stop allowing extensions of leave under the ADA?


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Last September, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a multi-month leave of absence is never a reasonable accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

That’s all well and good for employers in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana. But, what about the rest of us?

For example, if you operate a business in California, you’re in a constant state of pearl-clutching. So, some guidance would be helpful.

Well, sure enough. We get some.

Just a little bit more.

In Ruiz v. Paradigm Works (opinion here), the plaintiff broke her ankle in November and faxed a doctor’s note to her employer indicating that she was totally disabled for a brief period during that month. Shortly thereafter, her doctor provided another note to the employer-defendant stating that the plaintiff would be temporarily totally disabled through February 22. During this period, the defendant provided the plaintiff with unpaid leave.

Then, near the end of February, the doctor provided another note that kept the plaintiff out of work until April. Instead of accommodating the plaintiff through April, the employer terminated her employment a few weeks after receiving the February doctor’s note.

Naturally, the plaintiff sued under the ADA. Otherwise, I’d have nothing to blog about today.

Cutting the cord on extended leave requests.

As we know, the ADA requires an employer to provide an accommodation to an employee with a disability where doing so will allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, and as long as providing it doesn’t create undue hardship for the employer.

The Ninth Circuit has recognized that “an extended medical leave, or an extension of an existing leave period, may be a reasonable accommodation if it does not pose an undue hardship on the employer.” However, “the burden is on the plaintiff to establish that medical leave would be a reasonable accommodation.”

While the facts and circumstance of each case may vary, the plaintiff was not able to satisfy her burden of establishing that the request for leave through April was reasonable:

Ruiz offers no evidence to satisfy this burden. She frames the issue as whether additional leave until April 1, 2016 based on her third doctor’s note would have been a reasonable accommodation, but she ignores that PGI had already given her two prior leave periods and she had been unable to return at the end of either of them. Even a finite leave is not a reasonable accommodation unless “it is likely that at the end of the leave, the employee would be able to perform his or her duties.”

You don’t have to accept an employee’s say-so about when they can return to work. For example, when a doctor has not cleared an employee to return to work, that controls. At that point, the employee is not able to perform the essential functions of the job.

But, it bears repeating that each case stands on its own facts and circumstances. For example, if Ruiz had only asked for one extra week of leave into early March, and had presented evidence that she would be back to work — even if that meant back to work with an accommodation such as a flex schedule or light duty — then she likely would have survived summary judgment.

So, in other words, it depends.

***High-fives imaginary gallery of employment lawyers***

“Doing What’s Right – Not Just What’s Legal”