Human Resources News & Insights

Court issues pro-employer ADA ruling — but don’t celebrate quite yet

Every HR pro should know additional leave can be a reasonable accommodation when an employee’s FMLA leave is exhausted. But does an employee have to specifically ask for this additional leave in order to receive it?  

A court recently answered that question in Judge v. Landscape Forms.

4-to-6 month recovery time

The case was brought forward by Mark Judge, an employee who took FMLA leave after a shoulder surgery stemming from a non-work injury.

At the time of his surgery, Judge informed his employer that the recovery period was expected to be around four to six months long. But when Judge’s 12 weeks of FMLA leave expired, he didn’t let the company know about his expected return-to-work date. Judge also didn’t ask for any additional leave time as accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Eventually, Judge was fired because, based on the conversation he had with a benefits specialist for the company, Landscape Forms decided it “couldn’t accommodate his existing restrictions, could not leave his position open indefinitely, and needed to maintain appropriate staffing levels.”

Judge responded with an ADA lawsuit, claiming the company should’ve accommodated his disability by granting him a leave of absence until he was released to work without restrictions.

‘The employer’s duty …’

The good news is the court sided with the company in this case. The court ruled that it had no obligation to accommodate Judge by providing unpaid leave in excess of the 12 weeks he was entitled to under the ADA.

In its ruling, the court pointed to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) regs regarding the ADA and stated:

The EEOC regulations interpreting the ADA place the initial burden of requesting an accommodation on the employee. Once that request is made, the employer has a duty to engage in an interactive process to identify the precise limitations resulting from the disability and potential reasonable accommodations that could overcome those limitations. But if the employee never requests an accommodation, the employer’s duty to engage in the interactive process is never triggered …

Proceed with caution

This is great news, right? After all, additional leave as an ADA accommodation can be an HR nightmare. Here the court essentially said that unless the employee specifically asks for additional leave as an accommodation, employers never have to grant it.

Yes, this court did basically say just that. However, a number of other courts have ruled that employers have to be all but clairvoyant when it comes to determining if extended leave should be granted as an ADA accommodation.

So what does it mean for employers? As with all things ADA, the only foolproof way to protect yourself from an ADA lawsuit is to fully engage in the interactive process prior to terminating an employee who may be disabled to determine if a reasonable accommodation could be granted that would allow  the employee to either perform his or her job — or return to work in a reasonable amount of time.

Remember, a court has said more than six months of leave is not reasonable.

And it also helps to use some common sense. Regular, open communication between HR and an employee on leave can go a long way toward preventing situations like this is the first place.

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