Conventional wisdom says that when a sick or injured employee asks for time off, you should grant it within reason. For one, the EEOC says that hard-capped leave of absence policies violate the ADA. For another, if an employee, returning from an FMLA leave, asks for a few more weeks of leave, what’s the harm in providing a few extra weeks of unpaid leave?
Attiogbe-Tay v. SE Rolling Hills LLC (D. Minn. 11/7/13) [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers] provides hope to employers that under the right circumstances, an employer can refuse to extend an unpaid leave of absence without violating the ADA.
Attiogbe-Tay worked the night shift at a senior living facility (The Colony) as a Licensed Practical Nurse, caring for 160 assisted living patients. Her job description required her kneel, squat, and be able to lift more than 100 pounds. As the only LPN working the night shift, she would have to lift patients if they fell, sometimes with help from other staff members.
Following years of knee pain resulting from degenerative joint disease and arthritis, Attiogbe-Tay elected to have knee replacement surgery, for which her employer granted her 12 weeks of FMLA leave. She returned to work at the end of the 12 weeks with a note from her doctor clearing her to work, but restricting her for six weeks to no kneeling, squatting, or lifting more than 50 pounds. The company’s employee handbook provides: “If medical restrictions exist at the end of the leave, the company will review and discuss the situation with the employee, and determine whether the work restrictions can be reasonably accommodated.” Instead of discussing potential reasonable accommodations with Attiogbe-Tay, her employer fired her.
In her disability discrimination lawsuit, Attiogbe-Tay argued that the company should have reasonably accommodated her by extending her leave for six additional weeks until her restrictions expired. The court, however, disagreed, concluding that while an “extended medical leave of absence” might be a reasonable accommodation, under the facts of this case it posed an undue hardship on the employer:
Here, Attiogbe-Tay was the only overnight LPN on duty. To cover Attiogbe-Tay’s shifts during her twelve-week FMLA leave, The Colony paid other nurses on its staff overtime and employed temporary LPNs from a staffing agency…. The Colony also bore considerable expense—$8,000 in additional staffing costs—as a result of Attiogbe-Tay’s twelve-week FMLA leave. Given The Colony’s relatively small staff size, its concerns over the quality of resident care, and the negative effects on its budget and staff, no reasonable jury could decline to find that the extended leave was an undue hardship…. As a result, Attiogbe-Tay was not qualified to perform the essential functions of the LPN position either with or without reasonable accommodations, and summary judgment is warranted.
Given the handbook violation by the employer, I’m surprised it won summary judgment. Nevertheless, this case illustrates that in the right circumstances, an employer can deny granting an extended medical leave without violating the ADA.
If you are planning on denying an unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation, understand that these terminations are risky and will draw scrutiny from the EEOC. Employers should make sure they have documented (on a case-by-case basis) the following to support a claim of undue hardship, such that a court will not perceive your efforts as a sham to evade an obligation to extend a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation:
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