As employers struggle with managing how much, if any, leave is required as an accommodation under the ADA, we are beginning to get more direction from the Courts to guide those decisions. In Easter v. Arkansas Children’s Hospital (E.D. Ark. Oct. 3, 2018) an employee was unable to work after exhausting her FMLA leave but she had an appointment to be evaluated by a specialist less than a month later. The employer denied the additional leave and terminated her employment. The Court held there was no violation of the ADA.
The Plaintiff worked as a specialty nurse and her job duties involved speaking on the phone with patients, insurance companies and doctors. She had a condition in her esophagus that interfered with her ability to speak and she went out on FMLA leave. After the initial approved leave period her doctor sent the Hospital a note stating she would be “unable to perform her current line of work for an indefinite amount of time.” The Plaintiff remained out on FMLA leave until it was exhausted. At the end of her FMLA leave the Hospital asked for an update and she reported that she still could not work but that she had an appointment with a specialist in 20 days to determine when she would be able to return. She requested additional leave until she could be further evaluated. The Hospital denied the request and terminated her employment.
The Court concluded that Plaintiff’s request for additional leave amounted to a request for indefinite leave. There was no information indicating when she could return to work and perform the essential functions of her job. The most recent doctor’s note stated she would be unable to work indefinitely and indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation. Citing an earlier decision the Court stated that “a leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation where it is finite and will be reasonably likely to enable the employee to return to work.” Having an upcoming appointment for evaluation did not establish a finite period of time for the employee to return to work.
Employers are often faced with situations where an employee has a date in the near future for further evaluation but does not have a return to work date. While the Court agreed with the employer in this case, these situations are very fact specific and employers must continue to proceed with caution.