How Long is Too Long for a Medical Leave of Absence?
If you are granting a leave to an employee as an accommodation, your best defense to a potential ADA claim is to open a dialogue with the employee about a return date, and prepare to be flexible.
Last year, I suggested that the ADA has swallowed the FMLA for employee medical leaves:
The recently amended ADA is expansive enough to cover most medical conditions. If most medical conditions are covered as disabilities, then most employees with medical conditions will likely, at some point during their tenure, need a reasonable accommodation. One accommodation that the EEOC considers presumptively reasonable is an unpaid leave of absence, even for employers too small to be covered by the FMLA…. If the ADA now covers most employees' medical issues, and the ADA requires an unpaid leave of absence, hasn't the ADA swallowed the FMLA, at least as employee medical leaves are concerned?
Last week, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals clarified that while unpaid medical leaves are a possible reasonable accommodation, no employee is entitled to an indefinite leave of absence.
In Robert v. Board of Cty. Comm'rs of Brown Cty. Kan. (8/28/12), the 10th Circuit concluded that an indefinite leave of absence is per se unreasonable. Catherine Robert, who worked as supervisor of released adult offenders, developed sacroiliac joint dysfunction. After a lengthy leave of absence, including 12 weeks under the FMLA, Robert remained unable to perform all of her required duties—including visiting offenders at their homes or in jail, supervising drug and alcohol screenings, and testifying in court. She sued for disability discrimination following her termination.
In upholding the dismissal of her claim under the ADA, the court focused on the indefinite nature of her leave of absence:
Although site visits and other out-of-office work were an essential function of her position, Robert would be nonetheless qualified if she could have performed those duties with a reasonable accommodation…. In light of Robert's complete inability to perform site visits at the time of her firing, the only potential accommodation would be a temporary reprieve from this essential function. Our precedents recognize that a brief leave of absence for medical treatment or recovery can be a reasonable accommodation…. There are two limits on the bounds of reasonableness for a leave of absence. The first limit is clear: The employee must provide the employer an estimated date when she can resume her essential duties. Without an expected end date, an employer is unable to determine whether the temporary exemption is a reasonable one. The second is durational. A leave request must assure an employer that an employee can perform the essential functions of her position in the "near future."
There is no evidence in the record that Robert's employer had any estimation of the date Robert would resume the fieldwork essential to her position…. As such, the only potential accommodation that would allow Robert to perform the essential functions of her position was an indefinite reprieve from those functions—an accommodation that is unreasonable as a matter of law. For that reason, she was not a qualified individual under the ADA and her claim of discrimination fails.
What does this case mean from a practical standpoint? That an indefinite leave of absence—one from which neither the employee nor his or her doctor can provide a date upon which the employee can return to performing the essential functions of the position—is per se unreasonable under the ADA. On the broader issue—how long of a leave is too long to be reasonable—the court punted. While the court passed on this important issue, it did suggest that six months might be too long, although a hard-cap on a duration of a leave as a reasonable accommodation is a moving target.
If you are granting a leave to an employee as an accommodation, your best defense to a potential ADA claim is to open a dialogue with the employee about a return date, and prepare to be flexible. While an indefinite leave almost always will be unreasonable, what is reasonable will depend on the nature of your business and how the employee's position fits into your organization. You cannot make this determination without talking to the employee, gathering medical information, and making an informed decision about what works best for your company.
[Hat tip: Eric Meyer's The Employer Handbook]