I am often asked by clients “how many times must we extend a medical leave of absence as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and for how long?” The answer is “until it causes an undue hardship on the company.” Let’s look at two recent federal court decisions reviewing this issue with opposite rulings on the employer’s motion to dismiss: Casteel v Charter Communications Inc. (Western District of Washington) and Aston v Tapco International Corporation (Eastern District of Michigan).
In Casteel, plaintiff was hired as a Retention Specialist on September 4, 2007. There were approximately 400 employees at the Vancouver call center where she worked, a large number of whom were Retention Specialists like plaintiff. Charter Communications’ handbook included a policy for twelve weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and provided for a 30 day personal leave of absence that could be extended once for another 30 days.
By June of 2009, plaintiff had exhausted approximately 385 hours of FMLA leave. In July, she was diagnosed with cancer and her physician indicated that plaintiff needed to be off work July 14 through August 14, 2009 to undergo chemotherapy, but also indicated that the condition could last 6 months. Since her FMLA leave was due to expire in July, plaintiff was granted an initial 30-day personal leave. When she was unable to return at the end of that leave period, plaintiff’s physician requested an extension of the leave through September 15, 2009, which was also granted. At that point, plaintiff had exhausted leave time under her employer’s policies. On September 14, plaintiff provided her employer with a note from her physician indicating that she was still undergoing treatment, but could return to work on February 4, 2010.
On October 6, the Human Resources Manager called plaintiff and asked what accommodation, if any, could they provide that would allow her to return to work. Plaintiff indicated that there was none since her doctor had already stated she could not return to work until February 4. That day, the employer sent the termination letter.
Plaintiff thereafter was approved for long term disability benefits and then Social Security disability benefits based on a new problem involving a mood disorder. To date, she remains unable to work.
Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and, thereafter, filed a civil suit, claiming she was fired because of her disability and that her employer denied her a reasonable accommodation when it failed to extend her leave further.