It is a common dilemma for employers: An employee requests a leave of absence for several months, fails to return at the end of the leave, and asks for a lengthy extension. Under what circumstances may the employer deny the extension and terminate the employee’s employment? A recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit—which covers Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island—shed a little light on the issue.
Employee Requests Medical Leave and Extensions
“Pam” worked as a hospital specialist at AstraZeneca. In December 2011, her psychiatrist diagnosed her with severe depression and extreme anxiety. The psychiatrist provided AstraZeneca paperwork estimating that Pam would need to be on leave until May 2012 (about 5 months).
In March 2012, the psychiatrist provided a medical record indicating that Pam was “mildly ill.” AstraZeneca sent Pam a letter instructing her to return to work by March 22 and informed her that if she failed to do so, she would be presumed to have resigned. The psychiatrist then submitted a medical note indicating that Pam needed leave until March 30. A later note extended her medical leave through the end of April.
AstraZeneca sent another letter instructing Pam to return to work or else it would presume that she had resigned. Instead, the psychiatrist faxed additional documentation to the company stating that Pam’s medical condition would probably last “more than a year” and explaining that her estimated period of incapacity was “12 months.”
Employer Denies 12-Month Extension, Terminates Employment
AstraZeneca did not approve another extension of leave. Instead, it sent another letter reiterating that Pam had to return to work or else it would presume that she had resigned. The letter indicated that her employment was terminated for that reason and that her position had been eliminated in a reorganization.
AstraZeneca offered Pam a severance package. She didn’t accept the offer. Instead, she sued the company for, among other things, failing to accommodate her disability under the ADA.
ADA May Require Medical Leave as Reasonable Accommodation
The ADA requires an employer to provide a reasonable accommodation for the known physical or mental limitations of an applicant or employee who is an otherwise qualified individual with a disability unless the employer can demonstrate that providing an accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of its business.
An employee must show not only that the requested accommodation would enable her to perform the essential functions of her job but also that, on its face, the accommodation is feasible for the employer under the circumstances (i.e., that the requested accommodation is facially reasonable).
A leave of absence or an extension of leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Whether a leave request is reasonable is a fact-intensive inquiry. It is the employee’s burden to show that a leave of absence or an extension of leave is facially reasonable. If she can’t, her claim will be dismissed.
12-Month Extension Unreasonable Under ADA
The district court and the 1st Circuit held that Pam failed to show that her request for 12 more months of medical leave was reasonable. The 1st Circuit found persuasive previous cases in which courts ruled that employees’ requests for extensions of leave of less than 12 months were unreasonable under the ADA.
For example, the 1st Circuit cited a case in which a court ruled that an employee’s request for an extension of medical leave of 4 to 6 months was unreasonable. In another decision, the 7th Circuit suggested that even a 2-month medical leave may not be required by the ADA because the “inability to work for a multimonth period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.”
The 1st Circuit cited its “newest judicial superior,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a 10th Circuit opinion. In the case, Gorsuch captured the dilemma lengthy leave requests pose for employers:
By her own admission, [the employee] couldn’t work at any point or in any manner for a period spanning more than six months. It perhaps goes without saying that an employee who isn’t capable of working for so long isn’t an employee capable of performing a job’s essential functions—and that requiring an employer to keep a job open for so long doesn’t qualify as a reasonable accommodation. After all, reasonable accommodations—typically things like adding ramps and allowing more flexible working hours—are all about enabling employees to work, not to not work.
. . . It’s difficult to conceive how an employee’s absence for six months—an absence in which she could not work from home, part-time, or in any way in any place—could be consistent with discharging the essential functions of most any job in the national economy today. Even if it were, it is difficult to conceive when requiring so much latitude from an employer might qualify as a reasonable accommodation.
The 1st Circuit agreed that complying with a request for a lengthy period of leave imposes obvious burdens on an employer, not the least of which is somehow covering the employee’s job responsibilities during her extended leave. In this case, Pam did not show that her requested accommodation was facially practicable, and therefore, dismissal of her failure-to-accommodate claim was appropriate.
Significantly, the 1st Circuit decided that because Pam failed to shoulder her burden of identifying a reasonable accommodation, there was no need to consider whether a 12-month extension would have imposed an undue hardship on AstraZeneca.
Some Relief for Employers
The takeaway from this case is that an employer may not be required to grant an employee’s request for an extended, multimonth medical leave of absence under the ADA, particularly if there is evidence that the employee will not be medically able to return to work in the near future.
Although there is not a black-and-white line, employees’ requests for extensions of leave of more than 4 months have been found to be unreasonable and may be denied based on case law. Each request for leave under the ADA must be analyzed based on the individual facts. In complex cases, the analysis ideally will include employment counsel.
Also, it is important to remember that employees may be entitled to medical leave under other federal and state laws, including the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
Meghan E. Siket, a partner at Whelan, Kinder & Siket LLP and an editor of Rhode Island Employment Law Letter, can be reached at email@example.com or 401-270-4500.