While many employees are aware that they are guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid leave for serious health conditions under the Family Medical Leave Act (and if they aren’t aware, they should get acquainted with the FMLA), they may not be aware that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may be able to provide additional leave to individuals with disabilities. The ADA requires that employers provide employees with “reasonable accommodations” and courts have found that unpaid leave may be reasonable in certain circumstances. The biggest question has been determining when the duration of leave goes from “reasonable” to become an “undue burden” that the employer need no longer provide. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a recent decision that examines the outer limits of leave as an ADA accommodation (and also demonstrates the power that a good union representative can have). See Bimberg v. Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker Sch., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 1357 (6th Cir. Jan 17, 2013) (pdf available here).
Hit the jump for the “she wanted how much leave??” moment…
In Bimberg, a teacher requested time off to care for her husband who had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Even though the teacher’s leave was set to begin in early January, meaning her FMLA leave would expire in April, her union rep was able to convince the district to allow the teacher to have a full 6-months of leave, allowing her husband to pursue expert treatment in another state. When the treatments were not as successful as originally hoped, the union rep was able to convince the district to extend the leave to a full calendar year from the date the teacher left the district. Unfortunately, the husband’s condition had continued to deteriorate and the teacher was still unable to return to work. At this point the district began notifying the teacher that if she did not return she would be terminated and she eventually resigned in lieu of termination. The teacher then changed her mind and when the district would not allow her to rescind her resignation, she filed suit for violation of the ADA.
On appeal from a grant of summary judgment in favor of the district, the teacher made a claim for “associational discrimination” (i.e. discrimination based on a relationship with an individual with a disability). In upholding the dismissal of the teacher’s claim, the court noted that the leave essentially “constituted an indefinite leave” and that the district’s actions “clearly did not constitute a violation of the ADA.”
While the court did not provide an extensive analysis of the leave, it is clear from the holding that a “indefinite leave” is per se unreasonable under the ADA. Therefore, employees looking for additional leave after FMLA has run out should be very cognizant of providing reasonable end-dates. Additionally, courts are going to closely review the length of the leave and it will take a very special set of facts to justify a leave even approaching 12 months.