Dive Brief:

  • A school’s registrar who exhausted her Family and Medical Leave Act entitlement and did not provide a return-to-work date was not due additional leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held (Drake v. Spring Independent School District, No. 20-20376 (July 27, 2021)).
  • Near the end of her leave, the employee inquired about additional time off but her medical documentation only indicated dates on which she would be re-evaluated by a doctor. The employer fired her, citing the lack of a return plan.
  • She sued, and a federal district court ruled in the employer’s favor. On appeal, the 5th Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling, agreeing that because she “was out of leave and could not provide a return date, … no accommodation existed.”

Dive Insight:

The FMLA generally entitles workers to 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave for their own — or a family member’s — serious health condition. When that leave runs out, the ADA also may entitle workers with disabilities to unpaid leave as an accommodation, but the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and courts generally say that employers need not provide indefinite leave. To meet the law’s “reasonable” standard for accommodations, workers must provide an estimated return date.

However, there’s little guidance on how much leave the ADA may require. That’s because “reasonable” can differ for various employers, roles and even seasons, so businesses must conduct an individualized assessment for each request. UPS, for example, previously maintained a firm 12-month limit. EEOC sued and the company settled the claim for $1.7 million, also agreeing to make clear that exceptions apply.

Definitive dates (“Oct. 1”), approximate dates (“around Oct. 1”) and date ranges (“between Sept. 1 and Sept. 30”) can be provided, according to an EEOC guidance. “However, indefinite leave — meaning that an employee cannot say whether or when she will be able to return to work at all — will constitute an undue hardship, and so does not have to be provided as a reasonable accommodation,” the commission said.

Importantly, when a return estimate proves incorrect, even multiple extensions may be reasonable, courts have held. And state laws may have additional requirements.

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