Through our blog, we always want to keep you up to date on new laws and/or cases that will affect the way you do business. Today’s post is on an old topic that still creates huge liability problems for employers every day. If I were to make a Greatest Hits List of the top employment law mistakes that businesses make, Medical Leave/Disability Accommodation mistakes would top my list.
Here’s a common scenario: you have a California employee on a medical leave for some type of illness or disability. The leave can be for any condition, ranging from depression to cancer to a bank injury to pregnancy complications. Generally, the employee begins taking leave for a serious medical condition under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) or California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”). In this common scenario, the employee has taken and exhausted their allowable leave under these acts. The employee is unable to return to work at the end of that leave and needs to remain on medical leave.
WHAT NOT TO DO: Do NOT summarily send the employee a letter from Human Resources, stating something to the effect of, “You have exhausted your FMLA/CFRA leave and are unable to return to work. Therefore, we are terminating your employment.” This is a common mistake that even large companies make. Let’s refresh your disability laws savvy.
Why is this letter so devastating for your business? Because the leave laws are different than the disability accommodation laws. Sometimes the disability laws require longer leaves, even if the leave laws have been satisfied. If your Human Resources personnel misses doing a disability accommodation analysis, that letter is going to be answered with a lawsuit for disability discrimination.
In my practice I have seen this occur an astounding number of times. The worst part of this scenario is that the best evidence the plaintiff employee will have against you will be the letter from your HR Department that basically admits you terminated that employee because of a medical leave of absence or because of their disability.
Writing letters such as these is like putting a bulls-eye target on your business. You might as well just send out a flyer to Plaintiff’s lawyers that says, “Please sue me and use the smoking gun document that I just sent out to my former employee to prove your case.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers salivate when a disabled potential client brings in such a letter from their former employer. And disability discrimination claims are the largest category of discrimination claims brought by both the EEOC and plaintiffs.
WHAT TO DO: Instead of sending such a letter, what you should and must do, if an employee is unable to return to work after exhausting their FMLA/CFRA leave, or even if they do not qualify for FMLA/CFRA leave in the first place, is to turn to an ADA analysis. A disability is generally defined as any condition that interferes with a major life activity, which includes interfering with working and sleeping. This definition is very broad and encompasses most health conditions. The law was expanded in recent legislation and is constantly growing to include new conditions and facts. A disabled employee can ask their employer for an accommodation for their disability, and they are entitled to a reasonable accommodation, as long as it does not create undue hardship for your business.
If your employee requests an accommodation for their disability, such as a leave of absence, you MUST engage in the interactive process with them. This means, simply, having a dialogue with the employee (and potentially their physician) on how you may be able to accommodate their disability. Then, it’s your duty to provide a reasonable accommodation for their disability. A leave of absence of reasonable length (which is sometimes well beyond a few months) has been held by courts to be a reasonable accommodation.
And even if your employee does not request accommodation, but simply states that they cannot work, the onus is on the employer to begin the interactive process. Once you are on notice of a potential issue, you must act to comply with the law.
This is only a snapshot of these rules, and there are other intricacies. As you can see, this is clearly not a simple analysis to perform and having lawyers involved who are well-versed in the application of these laws is extremely helpful in your attempt to insulate yourself as much as possible from liability.
SUMMARY: The lesson to be learned here is to make sure that your HR personnel and business managers are knowledgeable that there are numerous laws that apply to disabled employees who are on medical leaves of absence. Employees on medical leave have a great many rights, and to take steps toward terminating an employee who is on medical leave, you must jump through all the hoops under Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and you should document this process well. Protect yourself by preparing yourself with evidence to defend a disability discrimination case that may be brought later. Do this by documenting the interactive process and your attempts to accommodate the employee. When you find yourself in this situation, involve a lawyer and go through these steps meticulously. Disability discrimination cases, if successful, can have a lot of jury appeal and be very costly to your business.