How much is too much when employees request extensions of leave?
Employers, in general, voice confusion over the interaction of leaves of absence under the FMLA and ADA. While most employers understand the requirements of the laws independent of each other, i.e., that the ADA requires reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities who are able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations and the FMLA requires up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for an employee’s serious health condition, they tend to misunderstand how the two laws work together. This confusion was apparent in a recent case in Florida. The case involved a certified nursing assistant (a “CNA”) who worked for a nursing home. The CNA informed the nursing home that she required shoulder surgery, and her doctor anticipated that she would be able to return to work in 6 months. The nursing home granted her 12 weeks of FMLA leave. When that leave expired, the CNA submitted a note from her doctor that stated that she would be able to return to work in 3 months. The employer denied her request to extend her leave of absence and gave her the option of resigning in lieu of termination. She did and then sued the nursing home for violating the ADA.
During the trial, the nursing home admitted that it was confused about the intersection of the ADA and the FMLA. The employer indicated that it believed that if it granted an employee FMLA leave, there was no obligation to provide an accommodation under the ADA. This was a fatal flaw for the nursing home. The jury awarded the CNA approximately $57,000 for back pay and compensatory damages. In ruling on post-trial motions, the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Florida found that the nursing home, indeed, had an obligation under the ADA to accommodate the CNA’s request to extend leave of absence after her FMLA leave expired. The only question was how long was too long. Because these types of cases are fact-specific, there is no bright line test for what is a reasonable period of time for extending a leave of absence. An employer does not have to provide indefinite leave. However, in this case, where the facts demonstrated that there were numerous CNAs, frequent turnover, and the employee could have returned to work with no need for training, allowing her to extend her leave for three months “would have imposed no burden at all.”
This case demonstrates the need for employers to understand not only the requirements of the laws that apply to the workplace but the ways in which those laws interact with each other.