This situation comes up fairly often. An employee with a disability can’t perform their job, and needs leave to recover and return to work.
We know that indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation. But what about taking leave with only an “expected” return to work date? Is that too indefinite to be unreasonable?
I read a Pennsylvania federal court decision last night involving a woman terminated in January 2019 for allegedly refusing to return to work following a leave of absence precipitated by postpartum psychosis.
In December, the plaintiff and her doctor returned a form requesting an ADA accommodation that included her diagnosis of “Postpartum psychosis,” a description of her symptoms, and her requested accommodation—a period of leave that was “expected” to end on March 15. Concluding that this was not a reasonable accommodation (akin to an indefinite leave), the defendant eventually terminated the plaintiff’s employment because she exhausted her FMLA leave and could not provide a specific return date.
Unfortunately for the defendant, the court did not agree:
Indefinite leave directly contradicts the principle that the leave of absence should enable the employee to perform her essential job functions in the near future.
A jury could conclude, however, that [the plaintiff’s] requested period of leave was not indefinite. March 15 is, of course, a specific date on the calendar. A reasonable jury could find that [her doctor] wrote “expected” next to the March 15 date, not to suggest [the plaintiff] required an indefinite leave of absence, but rather as a good faith attempt to be as transparent as possible about [the plaintiff’s] recovery from a severe illness, which required hospitalization mere days before submission of the form. An estimated date “is not unusual and does not automatically render plaintiff’s request for a leave of absence open-ended and indefinite. (cleaned up)
Now, to the defendant’s credit, it followed up with the plaintiff during her leave to try to clarify her return-to-work date. And the record suggested that the plaintiff was hazy about it. Nonetheless, that did not make her leave accommodation unreasonable:
The [defendant’s] argument that [the plaintiff] expressed uncertainty regarding her request during the January 16 call with the [defendant] when she stated that she may not be ready to return by March 15 is similarly unconvincing. An employee with a mental illness may have difficulty effectively relaying medical information about his or her condition, particularly when the symptoms are flaring and reasonable accommodations are needed….A reasonable jury could conclude that [the plaintiff] requested a temporary period of leave that would enable her to perform the essential functions of her job in the near future. (cleaned up).
So, where does this leave employers?
In certain instances, there may be alternative accommodations to leave available.
At other times, FMLA leave may be appropriate.
But, otherwise, you may have to accept an “expected” return to work date, as long the length of the absence does not create an undue hardship on the business.
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