Is additional time off after a leave of absence a “reasonable” accommodation? The answer is unclear, and usually is “It depends.” Federal courts recently have disagreed with each other on the issue, and the question has received continued and increasing attention after the EEOC’s 2016 Guidance on medical leaves under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In the shadow of that question is a more critical – and often overlooked – issue: the way in which an employee’s request for additional leave is approached by an employer. One California employer recently was sent a clear message by a jury when that company completely failed to address an employee’s request for additional leave to deal with a post-injury recovery and depression and instead, determined without discussion that it was unreasonable. The jury’s total award to the employee, including punitive damages, was over $4.5 Million. Here are the facts:
- Della Hill worked as a counselor for a non-profit drug abuse program in Los Angeles County;
- In 2014, Hill was honored by the County for her work in that program;
- In 2015, Hill injured her arm and took time off to recover from that injury and from a diagnosis of severe depression;
- Hill was scheduled to return to work on March 23, 2015, but asked for an extension of her leave until April 11, 2015 – an additional 18 days;
- The request was not addressed and, instead, Hill was fired from her job on March 31, 2015 for failing to return from leave, without discussion about any accommodation or possible re-employment in the future;
- Hill filed suit under California law, which is analyzed similarly to federal anti-discrimination law;
- After a trial, the jury found in favor of Hill and awarded nearly $550,000 in past and future wage loss, and an additional $1.35 Million in compensatory (non-wage) damages;
- The jury also determined that the employer’s failure to engage in any interactive discussion with Hill was evidence of “malice, oppression, or fraud,” and awarded over $2.6 Million in punitive damages.
What’s the moral of this story? The jury’s reaction, and its resulting message to the employer, was based not on the general question of whether Hill’s request for an additional 18-day leave was “reasonable,” but on the specific lack of interaction by the employer after that request from Hill.
Employers should seek to understand the distinction highlighted by this jury’s verdict. Whether or not a requested accommodation is reasonable is subsidiary to the method used by an employer to address the request. This case points out that the method must include some form of interactive discussion that allows information to be exchanged – both state and federal disability discrimination laws require that. As is obviously illustrated in this case, lack of clear communication can lead to unintended (and unexpected) financial consequences.
(Thank you to Niya McCray at Bradley Arant Bolt Cummings in Birmingham for her analysis of this case.)