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Maximum Leave Policies and the ADA
Employees with disabilities are not exempt from maximum leave policies. Such policies, however, may need to be modified as a reasonable accommodation for disability-related absences, unless the employer can show that doing so would cause undue hardship to the employer.
- Sixth Circuit Requires Timely Request for Extended Leave under the ADA
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) claims of a school employee who was terminated after her leave exceeded the two-year leave limit set forth in the applicable collective bargaining agreement because the employee failed to make a timely request for an extended leave as an ADA accommodation. Wheat v Columbus Bd of Ed, Case No. 15-3824 (CA 6, March 16, 2016).
Kenwanna Wheat injured her shoulder while working as a school custodian. She continued to work for six months, but when the pain persisted, her doctor declared her unable to return to work. After Wheat exhausted all of her paid sick leave and vacation days, she took an unpaid leave of absence under the collective bargaining agreement.
Wheat requested and received multiple extensions of that unpaid leave of absence. With each extension, the school board informed Wheat, in writing, that her leave was subject to the “two (2) successive school years” limitation in the CBA. More than two years and seven months after Wheat first took a leave of absence, she sent the district a letter saying she was returning to work, was “disabled,” and would “need [an] accommodation.” The district promptly notified Wheat that her employment was terminated, citing the CBA’s two-year leave limit.
Wheat sued the district, alleging that (1) she was wrongfully terminated on the basis of her disability, and (2) the district failed to accommodate her disability. To prevail on her wrongful discharge claim, Wheat needed to show that disability discrimination was the “but-for” cause of her termination; meaning that Wheat would not have been terminated except for (but for) disability-based discrimination. The school district argued that Wheat was terminated not because of her disability, “but for violating the contractual leave-of-absence policy included in her CBA.” The court agreed.
The Sixth Circuit also held that Wheat could not prevail on her “failure-to-accommodate” claim because she never requested a specific reasonable accommodation during the two years she was on leave. In previous decisions, the Sixth Circuit has declined to adopt a bright-line rule defining a maximum duration of leave that can constitute a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Hence, if Wheat had timely requested during the two-year leave period (and not after it expired) that her unpaid leave be extended beyond the two-year limit in the CBA as a reasonable accommodation, the school district would have been required to determine whether an extended leave of absence for a definite period of time was a reasonable accommodation without undue hardship to the district.
- EEOC Publication on Employer-Provided Leave and the ADA
On May 9, 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a publication entitled Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The publication discusses the interplay between an employee’s general obligation to comply with an employer’s maximum leave policies (as discussed above in the Wheat decision) and an employer’s obligation to modify a maximum leave policy as necessary to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA for disability-related absences.
The EEOC’s publication is available on its website and explains an employer’s responsibilities in each of several scenarios related to when and how leave must be granted under the ADA for reasons related to an employee’s disability.
School officials responsible for implementing leave policies are strongly encouraged to review this publication, which supplements the EEOC's 2002 Revised Enforcement Guidance: Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A link to the EEOC’s 2002 Revised Enforcement Guidance is also available on the EEOC’s website at:
(see “Leave” under “Types of Reasonable Accommodations”).