Despite the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s more nuanced position, federal courts have generally rejected attempts by plaintiffs to claim that an indefinite leave of absence is a required reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals refused to create an exception to this rule where the claimed disability involved a temporary as opposed to a permanent medical condition.
In Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, the plaintiff injured his shoulder at work. Due to several delays, he did not have corrective surgery on the shoulder until after his FMLA leave expired. Under its leave policy, the employer granted the plaintiff another three-month medical leave. But at the end of this period, the employee was not medically able to return. He indicated that he would visit his doctor in another month but would likely have substantial restrictions even if cleared to return to work at that time. The employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment and he sued, alleging failure by the employer to provide additional leave as an ADA reasonable accommodation.
On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the claim on summary judgment. The plaintiff acknowledged that case precedent says that employers are not required to provide indefinite leaves. However, he argued that these prior decisions involved situations where employees suffered from chronic medical conditions that could continue indefinitely. In this case, the plaintiff contended that an unspecified leave was reasonable because once concluded, his medical condition would be resolved without the potential need for additional leave.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument, noting the six months of leave already granted, as well as the fact that the employee inarguably could not perform the essential functions of his job at the time of his termination. Regardless of the nature of his underlying medical condition, the employer was not required to provide an accommodation that would not have allowed him to perform those functions in the immediate future.
This case illustrates the importance of requesting updated medical information from employees nearing the end of FMLA or other medical leave periods. If the employee’s physician is unable to specify a date of return to work close to such expiration, employers have greater legal flexibility in determining whether or not to accommodate the request.