Here is a common human resource scenario: An employee goes out of work on medical leave. While she is away from work, the managers or co-workers who cover her duties discover that the work can be readily accomplished without the need for a full-time employee in that position. When the employee returns from medical leave, the employer wants to eliminate the position or change her status to part-time. Can the employer make these changes without violating the reasonable accommodation requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act?
According to a recent decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, this discovery serves as a legitimate business reason for changing the employee’s status, at least under the ADA alone. In Mendoza v. Roman Catholic Archbishop of L.A., the plaintiff was a bookkeeper for a small parish church. During her sick leave, the pastor was able to complete her job duties along with his own, and upon her return offered her a part-time position. She sued, claiming that she had not been offered reasonable accommodation under the ADA because she was not reinstated to her prior position.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. The court found no evidence offered by the plaintiff that the business reasons given by the church for its decision involved her medical condition or any perceived disability. The ADA does not automatically require that the employee granted a medical leave be reinstated to her prior position.
Of course, this decision might have been different had the employer been subject to the terms of the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA contains a specific requirement that the employee returning from leave be reinstated to her former position or one that is equivalent in terms of things like full-time status. Employers can demonstrate that a job was eliminated for reasons unrelated to the employee’s FMLA leave, but basing this decision on an evaluation of that employee’s value while out on leave risks an FMLA interference claim. While this case provides a good exit strategy for employers, its usefulness may be limited to those situations where FMLA leave rights do not apply.