The EEOC and federal courts have repeatedly said that employees seeking accommodations for disabilities under the ADA do not have to use any “magic words” to trigger the employer’s obligations. A recent decision from the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals demonstrates this legal principle in the context of an employee who requested a leave of absence to deal with depression and migraine headaches.
In Garrison v. Dolgencorp, LLC, the plaintiff made her manager aware of her medical issues and requested a leave of absence. Her manager responded that there was no available leave of absence, and that she could continue to work if she was able to maintain regular attendance. He referred the plaintiff to the employee handbook provisions on leave but said he did not believe she qualified for any leave. The plaintiff eventually quit and filed suit under the ADA and FMLA.
The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer on the ADA claims. The court said that the employee’s request to her manager for a leave of absence to deal with her disclosed medical issues was adequate to trigger ADA accommodation requirements. A jury must determine whether the requested leave was reasonable under the circumstances.
The court affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s FMLA claims on the basis that she did not follow the employer’s documented procedures for requesting FMLA leave. Although not directly addressed by the Eighth Circuit, this decision raises interesting issues for employers. In a situation where an FMLA-eligible employee fails to take steps to obtain leave under that law, this case indicates that the employer must treat the leave request as a potential ADA accommodation and make an independent determination on its reasonableness. It may not be enough for employers to simply terminate an employee for absenteeism because they did not follow FMLA procedures.