Pushing Back on the “Inadvertent Leave Law” – Court Rules that a Multi-Month Leave of Absence is not a Reasonable ADA Accommodation

Posted on: September 26, 2017 0

By Marti Cardi, VP-Product Compliance
& Gail Cohen, Director-Employment Law/Compliance

“How long of a leave of absence do I have to grant as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act?”

I get this question frequently.  I have long advised that employers must consider a new or extended leave of absence as a possible accommodation.  In assessing an employee’s ADA leave request, employers need to look at what the employee will be doing during that leave: Rehabilitative therapy?  Trying new medications?  Learning to work with an assistive device or a support animal?  Maybe recovery from surgery or an injury? 

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission agrees with me – or rather, I have come to agree with the EEOC.  EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum is often quoted as calling the ADA an “inadvertent leave law.”  And indeed it is – the ADA was not designed to be job-protected medical leave of absence.  Rather, the basic goal is to enable the disabled employee to work – with a reasonable workplace accommodation if needed.  But for years, the Commission’s guidance has been that leave is a reasonable accommodation as long as it is of a (somewhat) definite duration and will enable the employee to perform his essential functions upon return to work.  

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals begs to differ.  In a recent case, the court ruled that an employer did not fail to provide a reasonable accommodation when it denied an employee’s request for a 2-3 month continued leave of absence after exhaustion of FMLA.

The Facts.  Raymond Severson worked for Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures from 2006 to 2013.  His position was physically demanding, often requiring him to lift 50 pounds or more.  Raymond had a back problem that first manifested itself in 2005.  During flare-ups, the condition made it difficult or impossible for Raymond to walk, bend, lift, sit, stand, move, and work. 

Raymond had generally performed well and received promotions over the years but was having difficulty in his latest position.  He met with management on June 5, 2013, and accepted a demotion to second-shift lead, but never commenced work in that position.  Earlier the same day, Raymond wrenched his back at home exacerbating his back condition and was in obvious pain as a result.  He left work after the meeting with managers and then requested continuous FMLA leave due to his back. 

 During his FMLA leave Raymond stayed in touch with Heartland’s HR representatives.  He received periodic extensions of his leave based on medical reports that showed he had multiple herniated and bulging discs in his spine.  In mid-August, after steroid treatments yielded little improvement, Raymond informed HR that he was going to have back surgery on August 27 – the last day of his FMLA entitlement – and would need 2-3 more months of leave as an ADA accommodation.  Heartland denied this request but told Raymond he was welcome to reapply when he was able to return to work.  

Raymond never reapplied for work.  Instead, he chose to sue Heartland for failure to accommodate.  Oh, Raymond!  You should have taken a different path!

“The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”  So says the 7th Circuit.  After analyzing the relevant sections of the ADA, the court stated:

A “reasonable accommodation” is one that allows the disabled employee to “perform the essential functions of the employment position.”  If the proposed accommodation does not make it possible for the employee to perform his job, then the employee is not a “qualified individual” as that term is defined in the ADA.

Simply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.  [Citations omitted.]

And this:  

A multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The court acknowledged the possibility that a brief period of leave to deal with a medical condition could be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances, such as occasional flare-ups of arthritis or lupus.  

Intermittent time off or a short leave of absence—say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule, two of the examples listed in [the ADA].  But a medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job. [Citations omitted.]

Of interest and some degree of persuasion, the court compared the FMLA and the ADA as “leave of absence” statutes: 

If, as the EEOC argues, employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.  That’s an untenable interpretation of the term “reasonable accommodation.”

So there we have it.  According to the 7th Circuit, a leave of absence as an ADA accommodation is not reasonable if it is expected to last more than “a couple of weeks,” or if it will “span[ ] multiple months.”  

Employers have some similar comfort from the 10th Circuit in the case Hwang v. Kansas State University (2014).  In that case, the court ruled that a 6-month leave was not a reasonable accommodation:

 It’s difficult to conceive how an employee’s absence for six months — an absence in which she could not work from home, part-time, or in any way in any place — could be consistent with discharging the essential functions of most any job in the national economy today.  Even if it were, it is difficult to conceive when requiring so much latitude from an employer might qualify as a reasonable accommodation.

As the court said, ADA accommodations are “all about enabling employees to work, not to not work.”  You can read a great summary of the Hwang case on Jeff Nowak’s FMLA Insights blog here

Other than these two decisions, we are not aware of any other federal appellate court that has addressed how long of a leave is a reasonable accommodation under the Amendments Act (ADAAA).  [The 7th Circuit includes the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin within in its jurisdiction; the 10th Circuit includes Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wyoming.]

Employers, continue to tread softly and act wisely.  Don’t throw caution to the wind just because one or two courts have issued a reasonable opinion.  See our Pings below for recommendations on how to assess requests for leave under the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA). 

Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017) 

Pings for Employers

Don’t ignore the possibility of leave as a reasonable accommodation.  Nothing in the 7th Circuit’s ruling changes the employer’s obligation to consider more leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation following the exhaustion of other job-protected leaves such as FMLA or a company policy of allowing a set amount of medical leave.  Any inflexible leave policy could still be an ADA violation.  Read more on this topic at our blog post regarding an EEOC/Lowe’s $8.6 million consent decree. 

Don’t forget the interactive process.  Although the ADA does not require an employer to engage in the interactive process (check out footnote 1 in the Severson opinion), that is still the best way to ensure that you are fulfilling your ADA obligations to consider a reasonable accommodation upon request by a disabled employee.

Review the EEOC’s resource document on leave as an ADA accommodation.  It is always a good idea to understand the EEOC’s thinking on a tough issue, and they have shared with us in their resource document, Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act, issued May 9, 2016

 If you are thinking of denying an ADA request for leave as an accommodation, consult with your employment counsel.  Even in the 7th and 10th Circuits, this is still a tricky issue.  And, the EEOC will likely reject this case in its own proceedings.

 MATRIX CAN HELP!  Matrix’s start-to-finish ADA Advantage management services can help you wrangle with tough issues like accommodation decisions, including leave assessment of leave of absence requests.  You always retain the final decision whether and how to accommodate, but we manage the intake, medical assessment, interactive process, recordkeeping, follow-up, and more.  Our expert team of ADA Specialist is at the ready with practical advice and expert guidance.  To learn more, contact us at ping@matrixcos.com

Don’t Forget About Accommodation Obligations during the Application Process – The EEOC is On It!

Posted on: March 24, 2017 2

By Gail Cohen, Director-Employment Law/Compliance

& Marti Cardi, VP-Product Compliance

It appears the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has added a new focus to its enforcement efforts.  In its latest Strategic Enforcement Plan, the EEOC announced that one of its national priorities is for “the Commission to address . . .  issues involving hiring barriers and the ADA.”  Many of the recent settlements by the EEOC highlight just how seriously the EEOC is taking this strategic priority, in particular regarding applicants who request a reasonable accommodation in the pre-employment processes.  Here are a couple of examples:


EEOC Settlement on Behalf of Trucking Applicant for Failure to Accommodate

An applicant for a truck driver position with Covenant Transport sought accommodation, on the basis of his medical condition, to have a blood test instead of providing a urine sample in connection with the company’s pre-employment drug screening.  The EEOC filed suit, alleging that the company initially agreed to this request for accommodation, but ultimately reneged and declined to hire him because he could not submit a urine specimen for testing.

The oddest part of the settlement is that it requires Covenant to develop a written drug testing policy (surprised they did not have one already!) and to provide 90-minute trainings annually on the policy (that’s a long time to discuss one policy!) to its recruiters and head of safety. Covenant also agreed to pay $30,000 to the applicant.

EEOC Press Release 02-24-2017

Cell Phone Repair Facility Settles EEOC Lawsuit on Behalf of Two Applicants Denied Reasonable Accommodation.

As part of its hiring process, S&B in Fort Worth, Texas, required applicants to participate in a “group interview” with prospective supervisors. During this interview, the EEOC contended that the two applicants on whose behalf it brought this lawsuit were observed to be engaging in American Sign Language to communicate with each other. They asked that the supervisors provide them with written questions.  The lawsuit alleged that the supervisors initially did so, then declined to continue and told both applicants the company would not hire them.

This lawsuit cost S&B $110,000 but, as you no doubt can guess by now, the EEOC imposed additional requirements on S&B to settle.  The company is also required to maintain a written log of all disability-related complaints and report semi-annually to the EEOC.  In addition, managers, supervisors, and HR personnel are required to attend a training conducted by a Dallas advocacy center for deaf individuals on the use of sign interpreters in interview and employment settings.

EEOC Press Release 02-23-2017


Pings for Employers:

Remember that the ADA applies to applicants as well as current employees. The prospective employer must provide reasonable accommodation(s) to applicants for known disabilities to assist them through the application process.

Train internal recruiters and interviewing personnel on the requirements of the ADA, so that they recognize and respond appropriately to a request for an accommodation during the application process.

Establish a culture of disability acceptance and recognition of each individual’s capabilities, not their disabilities.

 

MATRIX CAN HELP!  Matrix provides leave, disability, and accommodation management services to employers seeking a comprehensive and compliant solution to these complex employer obligations. We monitor the many leave laws being passed around the country and specialize in understanding how they work together. For leave management and accommodation assistance, contact us at ping@matrixcos.com.

EEOC Heightens Focus on Mental Health and the Workplace with New Employee Q&A

Posted on: December 14, 2016 1

mental-health-brain-shutterstockAt Matrix Absence Management, we are seeing an increase in workplace accommodation requests due to mental health impairments, including modified work schedules and work-from-home arrangements.   The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long focused on mental health impairments in the workplace and is noticing increases in mental health issues as well.  On December 12, 2016, the EEOC stepped up its game with a new employee-centered resource document, Depression, PTSD, & Other Mental Health Conditions in the Workplace: Your Legal Rights.  The document is brief – only 2 pages – and doesn’t break any  new ground, but pulls together in Q&A format some basic ADA and mental health information that can be helpful to employees and employers alike.

Continue reading

Lowe’s to pay $8.6 million in yet another EEOC case involving inflexible leave policies

Posted on: May 23, 2016 3

By Marti Cardi, VP-Product Compliance & Gail Cohen, Director, Compliance & Employment LawCartoon Animal Eyes Under Big Stone

Employers, if you haven’t fixed this issue yet, get out from under that rock!

If an employee with a disability exhausts leave time provided by company policy or by a law such as the FMLA, you have two obligations.

First, consider even more leave as a reasonable accommodation. 

Second, consider reasonable workplace accommodations to allow the employee to return to work

It’s that simple.

As announced by the EEOC on May 13, 2016, home improvement giant Lowe’s has agreed to pay $8,600,000 to affected employees as part of a consent decree entered into with the EEOC in a federal district court in California. The EEOC claims that Lowe’s violated the ADA by terminating employees with a disability after failing to provide them reason­able accommodations when their medical leaves of absence exceeded Lowe’s 180-day (and, subsequently, 240-day) maximum leave policy.

And it’s not just about the money.  The consent decree agreed to by Lowe’s in this case includes some very typical additional requirements, all enforceable by court order.  The four-year consent decree settling the suit requires that Lowe’s:

  • Retain a consultant with ADA experience to review and revise company policies as appro­priate;
  • Implement effective training for both supervisors and staff on the ADA;
  • Develop a centralized tracking system for employee requests for accommoda­tion;
  • Maintain an accommodation log;
  • Post documentation in its workplaces related to the settlement; and
  • Submit regular reports to the EEOC verifying compliance with the decree.

Thus, Lowe’s ends up not only paying the agreed-upon amount of damages, but also incurs significant expenses (for example, attorneys’ fees) and business disruptions during the EEOC’s investigation and in complying with the terms of the consent decree for four years.

Two types of policies are on the EEOC’s radar.  An employer’s obligation to provide more leave than offered by company policies or required by law has received much recent attention.  Why, just this month the EEOC released a new Resource Document entitled Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  While the Resource Document did not break any new ground (no, the EEOC still won’t say how long a leave can be before it becomes an unreasonable accommodation), it does pull together in one handy place all existing EEOC guidance on the issue, including assessment of extra leave as an undue hardship.  Our blog post on the Resource Document can be found here.  Meantime, the EEOC is focusing on the following:

Maximum or inflexible leave policies (sometimes referred to as “no fault” leave policies) take many different forms.  A common policy, especially for entities covered by the FMLA, is a flat limit of 12 weeks for both continuous and intermittent leave.  Some employers not covered by the FMLA set lower overall caps. Others tie the maximum leave to the duration of short-term disability benefits.  Any inflexible cap may result in an ADA violation because it does not allow for the interactive process and individualized consideration of whether additional leave or some other reasonable accommodation will enable the employee to return to work.

100% recovered or healed policies are those that require an employee with a disability to have no medical restrictions – that is, be “100%” healed or recovered – before returning to work.  These also have huge potential to violate the ADA because the employer does not engage in the interactive process to discover whether the employee can perform essential functions with on-the-job reasonable accommodation(s).

Lots of companies got it wrong in the past.  Many employers have been the subject of EEOC investigations and, ultimately, a pricey consent decree.  Here are some of the bigger-ticket resolutions:

Company Date Amount Policy /Practice in Violation of ADA
Lowe’s 2016 $8.6 million Terminating employees whose need for medical leaves of absence exceeded Lowe’s maximum leave policy (180 days, subsequently 240 days)
Pactiv LLC 2015 $1.7 million Assessing attendance points for medically-related absences; not allowing use of intermittent leave or extension of a leave of absence as an ADA reasonable accommodation
Princeton HealthCare System 2014 $1.35 million Limiting medical leave of absence to maximum of 12 weeks:

  • employees FMLA-eligible terminated after 12 weeks\
  • employees not FMLA-eligible terminated after short absence

Requiring certification of 100% recovery upon return to work rather than considering return to work with a reasonable ADA accommodation

Dillard’s 2012 $2.0 million
  • Maximum-leave policy limiting the amount of medical leave an employee could take
  • Policy requiring all employees to disclose personal and confidential medical information in order to be approved for sick leave
Interstate Distributor Co. 2012 $4.85 million
  • Limiting medical leave of absence to maximum of 12 weeks
  • Requiring certification of 100% recovery upon return to work rather than considering return to work with a reasonable ADA accommodation
 Verizon Communications   2011  $20 million Failing to make exceptions to “no fault” attendance plans for individuals with disabilities as an ADA accommodation
 Supervalu, Inc., Jewel Food Stores, Inc. etc.  2011  $3.2 million Terminating employees with disabilities who were not 100% recovered at the end of medical leaves of absence rather than considering return to work with a reasonable ADA accommodation
 Sears, Roebuck and Co.  2009  $6.2 million Terminating employees following exhaustion of workers’ compensation leave without engaging in the interactive accommodation process to consider workplace accommodations or leave extension as an accommodation

PINGPings for employers:  We provided pointers for employers in our last blog post so we won’t repeat, but given the size of the potential price tag we suggest that you go back and read again.

MATRIX CAN HELP! Matrix’s ADA Advantage leave management system and our dedicated ADA accommodation team helps employers maneuver through the accommodation process – including spotting noncompliant leave policies during implementation of our services.  We will initiate an ADA claim for your employee, conduct the medical intake and analysis if needed, manage the interactive process, assist in identifying reasonable accommodations, document the process, and more.  Contact Matrix at 1-800-866-2301 to learn more about these services.

 

Leave as ADA Accommodation:  EEOC Releases New Resource Document – But Nothing’s New

Posted on: May 10, 2016 1

By Marti Cardi, VP-Product Compliance & Gail Cohen, Director, Compliance & Employment Law

Yesterday, the EEOC released a Resource Document titled Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act. We in the employer community have been awaiting EEOC guidance on this hot topic since June 2011, when the Commission held a public hearing with testimony from representatives of the EEOC, and employer and employee communities, to discuss leave of absence as an ADA accommodation.  An EEOC Guidance on the topic was expected in April 2012 but was withheld from release at the last minute, probably because of a lack of consensus on key points among the EEOC Commissioners.

By the EEOC’s own admission, the Resource does not break any new ground.  Rather, it pulls together in one place existing EEOC interpretations and Enforcement Guidance. Regardless of its title, you can be sure that if you have an inflexible leave policy that provides for a set period of leave which results in termination of employment or other adverse action for employees who exhaust that leave, the EEOC is likely to conclude this to be a violation of the ADA.  In today’s blog post, we will highlight the major points in the Resource Document; the entire document is here.

The question of reasonableness is barely acknowledged. In last week’s blog post, we discussed our informal meeting with EEOC Commissioners Feldblum and Lipnic, in which they expressed their opinion that leaves of nearly any duration must be provided by employers unless they can demonstrate an undue hardship. True to this sentiment, the Resource Document is strangely dismissive of the threshold questions all of us in the employer community deal with, namely: is the accommodation reasonable and effective to enable the employee to return to work and perform the essential functions of his position?  Rather, the question of reasonableness is relegated to a mere footnote (#5) in which the EEOC states that the 20 examples provided in the document each assume that the requested leave is reasonable.

Key Topics Addressed. Contact with employee’s provider.The Resource Document highlights an important tool employers have as they engage in the interactive process and assess employee accommodation requests:  the ability to engage with the employee’s provider (with a proper authorization from the employee).  Specifically, the EEOC reminds employers that they can seek additional information to determine:

  • The specific reasons the employee needs leave;
  • Whether the leave will be continuous or intermittent; and
  • When the need for leave will end.

Maximum Leave and 100% healed policies.  The EEOC has long targeted employers with policies that cap the amount of leave an employee can take or that require an employee to be 100% healed before returning to work. The Resource Document confirms the agency’s position that these policies violate the ADA because they do not allow for individualized assessment of the employee and her position.  Employers beware – this is “low hanging fruit” in the EEOC’s opinion and its lawsuits have resulted in multi-million dollar consent decrees against employers.

Reassignment as an accommodation.  In some cases the result of the interactive process is a conclusion that the employee is not “qualified” for his position (i.e., his disability prevents him from performing one or more essential functions of his job and there is no effective, reasonable accommodation to enable him to do so).  The Resource Document reminds employers that reassignment is the accommodation of last resort.  The EEOC restates its position that if the employee is qualified, he or she must be reassigned in a vacant position.  Two reassignment issues are not well understood by employers:  (1) that the employer has the obligation to search for an appropriate vacant position, and (2) the employee does not have to compete or be the best qualified for the vacant position – if he is qualified and can perform the essential function with or without an accommodation, the employee gets the position.

Undue hardship.  The Resource Document concludes with a discussion of the factors employers can consider in its undue hardship analysis.  However, the only leave of absence that the EEOC concedes would be an undue hardship is “indefinite leave” – meaning that “an employee cannot say whether or when she will be able to return to work at all.”  Since the vast majority of requests for a leave of absence are far from this straightforward instance, our recommendation is that employers consider undue hardship only after a thorough, thoughtful analysis of whether a leave of absence is a reasonable and effective accommodation.

PINGPings for Employers. First, review your leave policies! Ensure you don’t have any inflexible leave policies that make you fodder for an EEOC investigation and lawsuit.  Scrub your policies for leave caps or requirements for the employee to be 100% healed or at maximum medical improvement.

If you have a solid business reason for such a policy, ensure that it includes notice to employees that if an employee needs an ADA accommodation (additional leave or a workplace accommodation to enable return to work) the employee should contact the employer’s human resources department.

  • Get the employee’s health care provider involved. Even the EEOC concedes that employers have the right to obtain sufficient medical information to understand the employee’s need for leave as an accommodation. Without the employee’s consent, the employer can’t directly approach that provider, but we at Matrix recommend preparing a communication (for the employee to bring to the doctor) with concise questions. Depending on the specific circumstances, that communication can include: (1) clarification or elaboration on anything unclear in the documentation the employee obtained from the doctor to support his request for leave; (2) specific questions on the amount of leave needed; (3) the reason that leave will be effective to enable the employee to return to work; and (4) whether there are any accommodations, other than leave, that the doctor believes would be effective.
  • Treat each extension request as a new request. After approval of an initial request for a leave of absence as an accommodation, treat any request for an extension as a new request and a new opportunity to engage with the employee’s provider. At Matrix we ask questions such as what has changed with respect to the employee’s condition, why this extension will enable the employee’s return, and whether there are any accommodations other than leave that might be effective.
  • Near the end of an approved leave, ask the employee if he or she is returning, or needs an accommodation. In any letters you, or your TPA, use to notify an employee of the expiration of an approved leave, there should be language asking the employee to communicate whether or not if she will be able to return to work at the end of leave, or if she needs an (additional) accommodation and the method and timing to make that request.
  • Document that you have done things right! The Resource Document is clear that leave as an accommodation is an important, strategic initiative of the EEOC. Employers must engage in an interactive process, use all the tools the ADA provides, conduct an individualized analysis, and document, document, document.

MATRIX CAN HELP! Matrix’s ADA Advantage leave management system and our dedicated ADA accommodation team helps employers maneuver through the accommodation process.  We will initiate an ADA claim for your employee, conduct the medical intake and analysis if needed, manage the interactive process, assist in identifying reasonable accommodations, document the process, and more.  Contact Matrix at 1-800-866-2301 to learn more about these services.