Employer’s Failure to Extend Disabled Worker’s Six-Month Leave Might Violate Law

While not mandated, extending a leave may be required

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. Apr 20, 2017
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​A hospital employee who was fired after she requested an extension of a medical leave of absence that had exceeded the hospital's six-month maximum for disability leaves could sue her employer under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the California Court of Appeal ruled.

Under FEHA, the court said, an employer has an ongoing duty to work with an employee with a disability to identify and implement reasonable accommodations that will enable the employee to perform essential job functions. Extending a leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation if it is likely that the employee would be able to perform the essential job functions at the end of the extension and if providing the extension would not be an undue hardship on the employer.

[SHRM members-only how-to guide: How to Manage Disability Accommodations in California]

The employee, however, could not proceed with claims under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). The CFRA guarantees an employee 12 weeks of leave to care for a family member or recover from a serious health condition and reinstatement to the same or an equivalent position at the end of that leave period.

Unlike FEHA, the CFRA does not require an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee's disability or health condition. If an employee is unable to perform her essential job functions at the end of a 12-week CFRA leave, the employer may terminate the employee without violating the CFRA.

Leave Exceeded Six-Month Maximum

In July 2010, Rogene Clark went to work for Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian as an admitting representative in its imaging center. After several months, she began experiencing severe stress, anxiety and depression that continued to worsen. On Dec. 1, 2011, Clark began a medical leave of absence to address her condition. Hoag's leave of absence policy provides that the maximum allowable leave is six months in any 12-month period.

Clark remained on leave throughout the first half of 2012. On June 28, 2012, a Hoag human resources professional sent a letter informing Clark she had reached her six-month maximum under Hoag's leave policy in late May 2012. The letter continued, "If you are unable to return to work by July 16, 2012, we will process your separation of employment effective on that date. "

On July 12, 2012, Clark's psychologist e-mailed Hoag a letter stating, "This letter serves to verify that [Clark] is totally and temporarily disabled effective today, until Aug. 20, 2012, at which time she will be re-evaluated to determine her work status."

After receiving this letter, Hoag's HR professionals decided to terminate Clark's employment effective July 17, 2012. The personnel action form Hoag prepared stated that the reason was that Clark had exhausted the company's maximum leave allowance. When Hoag discharged her, Clark had been on leave for seven and a half months.

In June 2013, Clark sued Hoag for unlawful discrimination, failure to reasonably accommodate a known disability or condition, failure to engage in the interactive process under FEHA and violations of the CFRA. Hoag moved for summary judgment, seeking a dismissal of the claims before trial, arguing that each of Clark's claims failed because Hoag terminated Clark for the legitimate nondiscriminatory reason that she was unable to perform her essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodations; Hoag reasonably accommodated Clark by providing her more than seven months of leave; and Clark did not request or otherwise identify any further accommodation that Hoag failed to provide.

The trial court granted Hoag summary judgment, dismissing all the claims, concluding that Hoag had provided Clark significant leave and had no obligation to keep her position open indefinitely. Clark appealed the decision to the appellate court.

Differences Between Requirements Under CFRA and FEHA

The appellate court reversed the judgment dismissing Clark's FEHA claims. Under FEHA, an employer must engage in an interactive process and work with a disabled employee to identify reasonable accommodations that will allow the employee to perform essential job functions.

Whether a leave extension is a reasonable accommodation presents a question of fact to be decided on a case-by-case basis. That Hoag already had provided Clark more than seven months of leave did not necessarily mean extending the leave for an additional five weeks was unreasonable, the court said, concluding that Hoag was entitled to a trial on her FEHA claims.

However, the appeals court affirmed the judgment dismissing Clark's CFRA claims. If an employee is unable to perform the essential job functions at the end of a 12-week CFRA leave, the employer may terminate the worker without violating that law, the court noted.    

Clark v. Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian, Cal. Ct. App., No. G051949 (March 30, 2017).

Professional Pointer: If an employee cannot return to work at the end of a 12-week CFRA leave, that statute does not require the employer to provide any more leave. However, if the employee needs leave beyond the 12 weeks, the interactive process under FEHA is triggered and additional leave may be required as a reasonable accommodation.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.

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