Managing employees on medical leave of absence is one of the most vexing human resource problems a company must manage. Not only must the company ensure compliance with any statutorily mandated leaves that may be applicable, such as FMLA or CFRA, it must also consider the medical leave process in the context of disability discrimination and its obligation to reasonably accommodate a qualified disabled employee. Particularly difficult is the issue of when an employer may say “no” to continued extensions of a medical leave by a disabled employee.
A recent federal court decision provides an analysis that is useful for employers facing the dilemma of the repeated open-ended extension of a medical leave. In Ruiz v. Paradigmworks Group, Inc., Ms. Ruiz fell and broke her ankle resulting in an initial request for medical leave of one week and an immediate second request for medical leave of approximately three months based on a required surgery. Toward the end of the three month leave of absence, Ms. Ruiz submitted a doctor’s note stating that she was temporarily totally disabled for an additional five weeks with no stated expected return date. After receipt of this third leave extension request, the employer terminated Mr. Ruiz but invited her to apply for positions once she became able to work again.
Ms. Ruiz filed suit alleging, among other things, that her employer had discriminated against her based on a disability and had failed to offer the reasonable accommodation of another extension of her medical leave. The court rejected Ms. Ruiz’ argument, reasoning that while a finite leave can be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA or FEHA, an employer is not required to provide an indefinite leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation. In this instance, the court found that Ms. Ruiz offered no evidence that she would have been able to return to work following the third extension of her medical leave. The court concluded that the employer had no reason to believe she would have been able to return after the third extension and therefore it was not required to provide an extension of the leave indefinitely as part of its reasonable accommodation obligation under the ADA or FEHA.
While the outcome was an excellent one for Ms. Ruiz’s employer in this instance, employers should not rush to conclude that they may deny any medical leave extension that does not have a finite end date. Under FEHA, there is a very specific obligation to engage in an interactive process regarding reasonable accommodation. Generally speaking, this will require some inquiry of an employee on medical leave regarding an expected return date before a decision is made to terminate employment rather than extend a medical leave of absence.
Decisions around medical leaves of absences involve a variety of potentially applicable laws, including the FMLA, CFRA, ADA and FEHA. There are few black and white answers when it comes to administering medical leaves and employers should tread carefully when making a decision to deny a leave of absence request or to terminate an employee who is on medical leave. Our team regularly assists clients in managing compliance with the FMLA, CFRA, ADA and FEHA.