The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed a number of lawsuits against companies with inflexible leave policies, claiming the policies are discriminatory under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The policies set limits on how much time employees can take off work for health-related reasons; employees who don’t return to work at the end of the specified period are fired. The EEOC claims these policies violate the ADA because they prevent employers from even considering granting additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.
Now, a recent decision by the Tenth Circuit upheld an employer's inflexible leave policy. The court posed the question of whether an employer must allow employees more than a specified amount of sick leave or face liability under anti-discrimination laws. “Unsurprisingly,” the court responded, “the answer is almost always no.”
The plaintiff, an assistant professor at a state university, requested and received six months of paid medical leave after being diagnosed with cancer. Near the end of the six months, her doctor advised her to request more time off. The university denied her request, saying that it had an inflexible policy that did not allow employees to take more than six months of sick leave.
The plaintiff sued the university under the Rehabilitation Act, a law which applies to recipients of federal funding and which is similar to the ADA. She cited an EEOC guidance manual which stated an employer must modify an inflexible leave policy if an employee with a disability needs additional leave, unless the employer can show that there is another effective accommodation that would enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, or if granting the leave would cause an undue hardship.
In upholding the district court's dismissal of the case, the Tenth Circuit argued that the plaintiff wasn't able to perform the essential aspects of her job even with a reasonable accommodation, and that requiring her employer to keep her job open beyond six months would not qualify as a reasonable accommodation. “It perhaps goes without saying,” the court wrote, “that an employee who isn’t capable of working for so long isn’t an employee capable of performing a job’s essential functions.”
The court went even further in its support of the policies by saying that inflexible leave policies could “serve to protect rather than threaten the rights of the disabled” by ensuring that disabled employees' requests for leaves aren't singled out for discriminatory treatment.
While this ruling applies only to states in the Tenth Circuit, it highlights the importance of staying current on various employment laws and compliance issues and implementing up-to-date policies and employee training.