How FMLA leave morphs into an ADA claim
Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines and read the stories of employers who provided an employee FMLA leave, only to have the situation result in a disability discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The two laws frequently to like to play in the same sandbox, so employers need to be aware of them both in relation to a single leave situation. A recent case from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania helps illustrate just how an innocent FMLA leave can mutate into an ADA claim.
An employee, we’ll call her Rani, had been performing her job well for years, rising through the ranks. At one point, however, her job caused her to suffer from major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of these conditions, she took FMLA leave. She also began receiving short-term disability.
About six weeks into her FMLA leave, Rani met with her supervisors, and asked to have her leave extended for an additional two months. That meant, however, that the leave would last beyond her 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Rani also asked to be transferred to another position to avoid the causes of her conditions.
Rani took her 12 weeks of FMLA leave and then applied for long-term disability (LTD) benefits. In support of these benefits, Rani’s doctor provided documentation to the LTD provider that she would be able to return to work after her extended leave but should not return to her original position.
About a month into her extended leave, Rani talked to Lola, the company’s HR representative, and was told that she was being terminated because she was being placed on LTD and was not capable of working. Rani questioned this decision, since she was planning on returning to work in about five weeks. Lola asked Rani to provide a copy of the information she gave to the LTD provider.
A few hours later, Lola called Rani back and again indicated that she was being terminated, as Lola interpreted the information as not containing a definitive return date.
Rani sued under the ADA, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the employment provisions of the ADA, is now arguing the following:
- The employer failed to seek additional information from Rani or her doctor regarding her condition, her request to be reassigned, or her plans to return to work.
- Rani was medically cleared to return to work at a definitive date.
- The employer never offered Rani a transfer to a vacant position (some were available) as a reasonable accommodation.
- Upon learning of Rani’s disability and her accommodation request, the employer did not engage in a good faith interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation was available.
Because of these actions, the EEOC is asking for reinstatement or front pay, backpay and interest, and compensation for past and future monetary losses, and compensation for emotional pain, suffering, etc.
The employer in this case seemed to handle the FMLA leave fine but stopped short when it came to the subsequent leave as a matter of an accommodation. A simple conversation — that interactive process — with Rani could have helped avoided the claim. Now, unfortunately, the employer will need to spend resources trying to defend its actions.
EEOC v. Defender Association of Philadelphia, No. 19-cv-01803 (E.D. Penn. April 26, 2019).
This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault, SHRM-CP, PHR, CLMS, of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc. The content of these news items, in whole or in part, MAY NOT be copied into any other uses without consulting the originator of the content.
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