“I’ll Be Back To Work Soon”: Massachusetts Addresses An Employer’s Obligations When Employee On Leave Gives An Indefinite Return Date

by Seyfarth Shaw LLP
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Seyfarth Synopsis: On February 5, 2017, in M.C.A.D. v. Country Bank for Savings, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) held that an employer engaged in unlawful disability discrimination when it terminated an employee whose medical leave had ended and who could not provide a definite return to work date. The MCAD found that the employer had an obligation to engage in the interactive process to determine if extending the requested leave was a reasonable accommodation for the employee’s disability.

What should an employer do when an employee whose medical leave has ended cannot provide a return to work date? Fire the employee?  Not so fast.  The MCAD recently found that it was unlawful for an employer to terminate such an employee without engaging in the interactive process to determine if an extension of the employee’s leave would be reasonable.

The Facts

The Complainant was a loan coordinator for Country Bank for Savings. In September 2009, she went on an approved 12-week FMLA leave to give birth.  The leave was scheduled to end on November 30, 2009.  In October, following delivery of her child, Complainant was diagnosed with post-partum depression and notified the Bank that she would not be able to return to work on November 30, as planned.  She provided the Bank with documentation from her medical providers stating that, due to her condition, she would be out of work indefinitely.

On December 11, the Bank advised Complainant that, because her latest documentation did not provide a return date, her employment would be terminated if she did not return to work by December 21. In response, on December 17, Complainant called the Bank and told her supervisor that she hoped to return to work by mid-January.  The same day, Plaintiff’s attorney addressed a letter to the Bank requesting a short extension of Complainant’s leave as an accommodation to her post-partum depression, pending upcoming evaluations from Complainant’s medical providers in mid-January.  The letter stated that after Complainant’s mid-January appointments, she would advise the Bank whether a definite return date could be set.

On December 22, the Bank terminated the Complainant’s employment without further discussion with Complainant because she had not returned to work by December 21 and had not provided a return to work date.

The MCAD’s Decision

The MCAD held that in terminating Complainant’s employment without engaging in dialogue about her return to work date, the Bank discriminated against Complainant on the basis of disability in violation of state law. The MCAD found that once Complainant identified her disability and requested an extended leave, the Bank was obligated to engage in a dialogue with Complainant to determine if the extended leave was a reasonable accommodation.  Here, the Bank mistakenly relied on the 12-week period required by the FMLA as a measure of reasonableness and assumed that all requests for leave beyond the 12-week period were automatically unreasonable.  In addition, the Bank failed to produce any evidence that an extension of Complainant’s leave until mid-January would impose an undue burden on its operations or finances.

What This Decision Means For Employers

This decision reminds employers not to be rigid in administering medical leave. In some circumstances, an extended leave — even beyond the FMLA’s 12-week limit — may be a reasonable accommodation.

Further, the decision demonstrates the importance of the interactive process. Even when an employee is unable to provide a return to work date following exhaustion of medical leave, employers have an obligation to continue the interactive process to determine if a reasonable accommodation is possible.  In this case, the employer should have extended the Complainant’s medical leave for a couple of weeks because there was at least a suggestion that she could have provided a return date by then, unless doing so would have imposed an undue burden.  As the MCAD acknowledged, if the Complainant could not provide a return date by then and had no prognosis for improvement, the obligation to extend her leave likely would have ended.

In short, the decision shows the importance of flexibility, reasonableness, and interaction in dealing with employees who are unable to return from medical leave.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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