What would you do if your employee told you s/he had a life threatening illness and needed time off for medical care? You would probably allow them the time off. The FMLA might require it. One or more state laws might too. So might the ADA. (Click here for review). What about an additional one-year leave of absence? Does the ADA require that? The First Circuit Court of Appeals in one particular case said “No”. Read on to find out what the court said and why…
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The case is Delgado-Echevarria v AstraZeneca, Case No. 15-2232 (May 2, 2017). Taymari Delgado-Echevarria, (Delgado) was a Hospital Specialist at AstraZeneca’s Puerto Rico location. In December 2011, Ms. Delgado requested short-term disability benefits and 5-month leave after doctors found a small brain tumor. AstraZeneca granted leave through March 11, 2012. AstraZeneca then told Ms. Delgado that she needed to provide documentation of her disability and the need for additional leave time. Ms. Delgado did not respond. AstraZeneca sent her a letter stating that she must return to work by March 22 or be presumed to have resigned from her job. Ms. Delgado still did not respond, and so an H.R. Representative called her and discussed with her the possibility of her resigning. Ms. Delgado became upset and ended the phone call. She provided documentation from her doctor, which said she was “severely ill”. AstraZeneca extended her leave through April 29.
Ms. Delgado still did not return to work, and was notified by letter that if she did not return by May 17, she would be presumed to have resigned. Ms. Delgado’s doctor faxed medical documentation that her condition would last “more than a year”. In the section of the certification asking for an estimate as to the amount of leave time needed, the doctor said “12 months”. AstraZeneca determined that the documentation provided did not justify the amount of additional leave time requested, and notified Ms. Delgado by voicemail and letter that she failed to provide adequate documentation, and terminated her employment.
Ms. Delgado sued, alleging that AstraZeneca’s refusal to extend her medical leave by 12 months amounted to: a) failure to reasonably accommodate a disability under the ADA; and b) failure to engage in the interactive process to discuss reasonable accommodations under the ADA. The federal district court dismissed the case. The First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. Why did it do so and what can we learn from this case?
The court reasoned that 12 months of additional leave was not a reasonable accommodation. Ms. Delgado had already had 5 months of medical leave, so the total would have been 17 months. Moreover, her own doctor said her condition was expected to last “at least a year” past the 5 months she had already been out of work. This type of request in effect becomes a request for indefinite leave, which even the EEOC says is not a reasonable accommodation. The point of a reasonable accommodation is to enable an otherwise qualified individual with a disability to perform his or her essential job functions. Leave is a reasonable accommodation when the time off enables an employee to recover and return to work. When it does not do so, it is not a reasonable accommodation.
The court also alluded to the fact that the sheer length of time off would pose an undue hardship to most employers. Undue hardship is a defense to a claim of failure to accommodate under the ADA. The hardship, of course, cannot just be an annoyance or inconvenience. If an accommodation poses an undue hardship, then by definition it cannot be reasonable. The court rejected Ms. Delgado’s argument that AstraZeneca failed to show that granting the extended leave would have posed an undue hardship. The court said that Ms. Delgado first had to show that the requested accommodation was reasonable. Only then would AstraZeneca have had to show that in fact under the circumstances the requested accommodation posed an undue hardship.
Does this ruling mean that all requests for 12-month leave are unreasonable? Does it mean that employers do not have to evaluate whether a requested accommodation poses an undue hardship, if the employee fails to show that the accommodation is reasonable? The answer here is a resounding “No”. The court made it clear, when it said “Our conclusion today is a very narrow one”. The court further stated that each case would have to be evaluated based on its own specific facts.
With that said, regardless of who has the burden of proving what, it is in your interest to evaluate each request and produce evidence of undue hardship. This means that when you do get a request for leave — or any request for a reasonable accommodation–that you feel is unreasonable that you document your conclusions and your basis for them. Presenting evidence of undue hardship, in addition to providing you a defense also enables you to show that the request itself is not reasonable. It is therefore in your interest to do so, even if you are technically not required to do it.
What about the interactive process? The ADA itself does not require an employer to engage in the interactive process (i.e. discuss the need for the requested accommodation, limitations in performing essential job functions and possible alternative accommodations). The EEOC and a number of courts do take the position that an employer is so obligated, however. Why wasn’t this employer obligated to do it then? According to the First Circuit, an employer is only obligated to engage in the interactive process when it receives a request for a reasonable accommodation. Since the requested accommodation was not reasonable, the obligation to engage in the interactive process was never triggered.
Warning: Not all courts would rule the way this one did. Many hold that employers have an absolute obligation to initiate the interactive process when an employee requests an accommodation. Besides, you often will not know if the request is reasonable until you engage in the interactive process. In other words, while AstraZeneca dodged a bullet here — based on somewhat technical arguments–other employers under other circumstances and in other circuits probably would not have.
So, note to self: when an employee requests an accommodation, be it time off or anything else, evaluate that request, engage in the interactive process and document everything you do with respect to that request. If you deny the request gather, document and be ready to produce any evidence that the request: a) is not reasonable and b) presents an undue hardship. If possible, explore and offer reasonable alternatives. If the alternative is effective in addressing the employee’s limitations and the employee turns it down, you are not obligated to hold the employee’s job open or reinstate him/her at a later time.
Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.
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