HR Management & Compliance

While You Were Gone … We Found out We Didn’t Need You

What happens when an employee is out on job-protected leave and an employer realizes that everything keeps moving along just fine without him or her or that his or her duties shouldn’t really take 40 hours per week? The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently had to decide just that.

While federal employment laws generally require that employees be reinstated at the end of a medical leave, employers may have options under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in such situations.

That law states that an employee with a disability must be returned to her same position after a medical leave of absence. But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, recently held that an employer was entitled to change an employee’s job from full-time to part-time when it discovered that his or her duties did not require a full-time schedule.

In Mendoza v. Roman Catholic Archbishop, No. 14-55651 (9th Cir. June 7, 2016), the court considered ADA claims filed by Alice Mendoza, a bookkeeper for a church. When she took 10 months of leave for a disability, the pastor took over her duties. He determined that the job only required a part-time employee and when Mendoza returned to work, she found that her job had been changed to a part-time position. She declined the position and filed suit.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granted summary judgment to the employer. Mendoza failed to show disparate treatment based on disability because she was unable to dispute the church’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for reducing her hours, the court said.

Mendoza appealed, but the 9th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling. Ninth Circuit precedent requires employees to show disparate treatment by demonstrating either that “a discriminatory animus is the sole reason for the challenged action” or that “discrimination is one of two or more reasons for the challenged decision, at least one of which may be legitimate,” the court said, citing Head v. Glacier Nw, Inc., 413 F.3d 1053, 1066 (9th Cir. 2005).

Could Be Different Under FMLA

Employers should note, however, that this decision may only apply when the ADA is implicated without the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), such as when an employer has between 15 and 50 employees or when an employee with a disability already has exhausted his or her 12 weeks of FMLA leave for the year. It seems that things work differently when the FMLA is involved.

In 2008, a district court in Michigan denied summary judgment for an employer that had eliminated an employee’s position while he was on leave. The layoff wasn’t related to a larger reduction-in-force; rather, the company realized that it was just fine without him. Because the reason the employee lost his job was connected to his taking leave, he could continue with his claim, the court determined. The parties eventually settled (Stephens v. Neighborhood Serv. Org., No. 07-11908 (E.D. Mich. Aug. 19, 2008)).

And just last year, the 10th Circuit, which covers Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming, sent a similar case to a jury. That case—which involved an employer that decided it no longer needed a middle manager position while the incumbent was on leave—settled as well (Janczak v. Tulsa Winch, No. 14-5071 (10th Cir. Aug. 20, 2015)).