Intermittent Leave Limits in FMLA Med Cert Trumps ADA Duty to Accommodate

Managing FMLA intermittent leave continues to vex employers. Terminating an employee with an intermittent leave certification usually carries significant legal risk.  A Minnesota federal court decision two weeks ago upheld an employer’s termination for excessive absenteeism of an employee with an intermittent leave certification.  The court rejected the plaintiff’s numerous FMLA and ADA claims and granted summary judgement to the employer. The decision is a must-read for leave management professionals.   short term absence image

The plaintiff’s health care provider had certified that the plaintiff would need up to two full days and two half days of intermittent FMLA leave per month for her serious health condition.  In its email approving the requested leave, plaintiff’s employer told her that “[a]ny absences above and beyond the FMLA approved frequency will be considered regular absences and will be eligible for attendance points per policy.”

On six dates, plaintiff sought to use FMLA in excess of her monthly allotment as stated on the med cert form. She received attendance points for these excess absences and for other non-FMLA related absences. Based on her accumulated points, she was terminated for excessive absenteeism under the employer’s policy.

Among her legal claims were claims were that she was discriminated against in violation of the ADA and that that the employer should have granted her more leave without incurring attendance points as a reasonable accommodation. In rejecting the ADA discrimination claim, the court concluded that she could not perform the essential functions of her position and, thus, was  not a qualified individual with a disability because she “could not come to work on a regular and reliable basis.”

In rejecting the failure-to-accommodate claim, the court said that her requested accommodation–“being absent from work more frequently”—was not reasonable because it “does not enable [the plaintiff] to perform the essential functions of her job.”

For those tracking inflexible leave developments, this decision adds to that jurisprudence.

Inflexible Leave Policy in Labor Contract Trumps ADA Duty to Accommodate

To grant an employee more medical leave than the maximum set out in the collective bargaining agreement is an undue hardship under the ADA, according to a decision earlier this month by a federal district court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  
The labor contract covering the plaintiff’s employment granted employees up to 90 days of sick leave, after which an employee either had to return to work, be transferred to a light duty position or resign and file for permanent disability.
After taking all of the sick leave granted him under the labor contract, the plaintiff requested an additional week of medical leave. His employer denied the request and terminated plaintiff’s employment. Rejecting the claim that his termination violated the ADA, the court said that allowing the plaintiff to have additional leave would have violated the labor contract and was unreasonable. As a result, the plaintiff was not a qualified individual with a disability.
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To ensure fair and uniform treatment, labor contracts include many terms and conditions of employment that apply to all bargaining unit members, without exception. An employer’s obligation under the ADA to provide a reasonable accommodation is, in effect, a duty to make an exception in some situations. The ADA itself provides no guidance to employers about how to reconcile these apparently conflicting obligations. This court’s decision reconciles them by holding that the inflexible leave policy (aka maximum leave policy) in the labor contract trumps the ADA-imposed duty to consider granting additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.  However, just as courts have split on the issue of whether an inflexible leave policy applicable to non-union employees violates the ADA, other courts may reconcile an employer’s ADA and labor contract obligations differently than this decision.

ADA Inflexible Leave Case Settled

Lawsuits involving inflexible leave policies always get my attention. I have been speaking and writing about such policies for decades. Last year, the EEOC sued Pilgrim’s Pride, alleging that it had violated the ADA by not modifying its attendance and leave policies to accommodate an employee with a disability. Earlier this month, the case was settled for $50,000 and other non-monetary relief.

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In its press release about the settlement, an EEOC official stated that “Nearly 30 years after the enactment of the ADA, some employers are still enforcing inflexible attendance policies… This lawsuit is a reminder to employers they have an obligation to make exceptions to attendance policies and provide leave as a form of reasonable accommodation unless doing so would result in undue hardship.”

Underlying the EEOC’s inflexible leave position is the oxymoronic anomaly that an individual who cannot come to work is nonetheless a qualified individual with a disability, defined as one who can perform the essential functions of the position either with or without an accommodation.

Not all courts subscribe to the EEOC’s view of inflexible leave policies. In 2017, the Seventh Circuit not only rejected the EEOC’s inflexible leave position but also held that the ADA does not even govern medical leaves. “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement…. Long-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA,” the Seventh Circuit said in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. Continue reading

Supreme Court Asked to Review Decision Rejecting EEOC’s Inflexible Leave Policy

The Supreme Court’s term just got much more interesting for leave management lawyers. A petition for certiorari was filed last week in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the Seventh Circuit decision rejecting the EEOC’s position that an “inflexible” or “maximum” leave policy violates the ADA because it does not allow for additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.  I had posted that the Supreme Court would eventually need to resolve the “inflexible leave” issue. Perhaps that time will be soon.

Heartland Woodcraft had provided the plaintiff with all of the leave he was entitled to under the FMLA and denied his request for an additional two to three months to recover from back surgery. The plaintiff claimed he was entitled to more leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The EEOC filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff.

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The Seventh Circuit held that the ADA does not govern medical leaves. “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement….. Long-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA,” the Court said.

Underlying the EEOC’s inflexible leave position is the oxymoronic anomaly that an individual who cannot come to work is nonetheless a qualified individual with a disability, defined as one who can perform the essential functions of the position either with or without an accommodation.

The Seventh Court rejected that argument.  “[A] n employees who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA,” the court said. (italics in original).  “[A] long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation…..'[N}ot working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions,” the court added.

In a 2014 opinion authored by then-Tenth Circuit Judge, now Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch, the Tenth Circuit rejected the argument that the employer’s six-month maximum leave policy violated the ADA. Hwang v. Kansas State University, (10th Cir.  2014).

 

The ADA is Not a Medical leave Entitlement Redux

Not a month since its Severson decision holding that the ADA does not create a medical leave entitlement and thwarting the EEOC’s assault on “inflexible leave” policies, the Seventh Circuit reiterated that holding in yet another case.

In Golden v. Indianapolis Housing Agency, the court affirmed summary judgment to an employer who had granted the plaintiff her 12 weeks of medical leave under the FMLA and an additional four weeks of leave under the employer’s policy, but denied her request for six additional months of unpaid medical leave.

The court said that the ADA’s “‘qualified individual’ requirement is fatal to Golden’s case. We recently reaffirmed that “[a]n employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA,” citing Severson (emphasis in original).

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Concurring, Circuit Judge Rovner questioned the circuit precedent which led to the result in Golden. Noting that these precedents had left open the possibility that the ADA may require an employer to provide short term leave, he asked: “But what sense does it make that the ADA could require an employer to accommodate an employee with lupus who requires one week leaves, several times a year, every year, but can never require an employer to accommodate an employee who needs a one-time leave of four or five months to recuperate from, for example, a kidney replacement?”

As I have said numerous times, the Supreme Court of the United States, eventually, will resolve the issue of whether, and to what extent, the ADA provides a medical leave entitlement. Perhaps the plaintiff in Severson or Golden will seek Supreme Court review!

The Demise of the Oxymoronic Anomaly of Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation

The oxymoronic anomaly underlying the EEOC’s position concerning inflexible leave policies has troubled me for years.  I first wrote about it in 2010, here. The recent Seventh Circuit Severson decision rejecting that inflexible leave theory destroys that oxymoronic anomaly and restores integrity to the definition of the word “can.”  Let me explain.

Under the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability is one “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” (emphasis added) The EEOC’s view is that an inflexible leave policy violates the ADA because it does not allow consideration of additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.

But how does an individual who cannot even come to work satisfy the requirement that he/she can perform the essential functions of the position if granted an accommodation of more leave? How is one who “cannot” also one who “can”?

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A few courts have recognized this anomaly. “When a period of leave from a job may appropriately be considered an accommodation that enables an employee to perform that job presents a troublesome problem, partly because of the oxymoronic anomaly it harbors…,” observed one judge. “Not working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions,” observed another. The Tenth Circuit three years ago said that reasonable accommodations “are all about enabling employees to work, not to not work.”

The Seventh Circuit in Severson minced no words in rejecting the inflexible leave theory and abolishing that oxymoronic anomaly. “Simply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working,” the court said. In other words, someone who “cannot” is not someone who “can,” at least not in the Seventh Circuit.

My post last week concerning the Severson decision is here.