A recent disability discrimination case from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is useful to Tennessee employees and employers in that it shines a light on some of the “variables” that can tip the scales of an employee’s Americans with Disabilities Act case in one direction or the other. In this case, since the employee had already been granted a long period of time off and was not certain of her recovery when she sought an extension of her leave, the appeals court relied on existing caselaw in ruling that the trial court correctly found the employer not in violation of the ADA when it denied the extension request and terminated the employee instead.
The employee, Renee Maat, was a court reporter for the district court located in Ottawa County, Michigan. About two years into her court reporter tenure, Maat became ill. Doctors eventually diagnosed her with blood clots in her lungs and brain. Maat requested and received Family and Medical Leave Act leave due to her condition and the incapacitating side effects of her blood-thinning medication. Maat’s FMLA leave expired on June 15, 2011, but the employer agreed to provide part-time leave until July 11. With her condition not improving, Maat asked for an extension of leave until August 1 and a conversion of her leave from part-time to full-time. She submitted a note from her doctors stating that they could not forecast a time for her recovery.
Due to the hardship Maat’s continued absence had created for her judge, the employer decided to deny the new request and instead terminated her. Maat did eventually recover and sued the county for terminating her. She accused the employer of violating the ADA by failing to accommodate her disability. The county, on the other hand, asked the trial court to award summary judgment in its favor, arguing that the law did not require it to provide the sort of accommodation Maat sought. The court agreed and issued the summary judgment in favor of the county.
Maat appealed, but she lost. The reason she lost was because the ADA only requires employers to offer reasonable accommodations in order to remain compliant with the law. The central issue with regard to Maat’s ADA claim and the key “takeaway” from this decision was exactly how much accommodation an employer must provide in order to meet this legal standard of reasonableness. In some cases, the courts look at balancing the benefit to the employee against the burden upon the employer, but, as the Sixth Circuit pointed out in Maat’s case, that type of analysis “is of questionable help” in deciding cases in which the accommodation the employee sought was a prolonged leave of absence.
What ultimately tipped the outcome in favor of the employer was not what Maat asked for in and of itself, but the new request taken together with everything that had already happened. The employer had already given Maat a long period of leave, and Maat’s doctors could not predict when she would recover. Under these facts, Maat’s request for an extension to her leave was unreasonable. Her request was similar to a case the Sixth Circuit decided back in 2000, when the court ruled against an airline pilot who sought an extension of his leave. In that case, the pilot had already been away from work for a year, and he could not pinpoint his date of recovery with any certainty. Denying an extension in those circumstances was not unreasonable, the court ruled.
When deciding whether or not an employee’s accommodation request is reasonable, in terms of ADA compliance, the result can depend on a number of “variables.” How long has the employee been off work? How long is the proposed extension request? How certain is the employee of her date of recovery? All of these things and more can make the difference between a denial being reasonable or being unreasonable and a violation of the ADA. The diligent Tennessee disability discrimination attorneys at Parks, Chesin & Walbert have helped many employers and employees answer their questions and tackle their issues related to disability discrimination and ADA compliance, and we are ready to help you with your case.
To speak with one of our lawyers about your case, call 404-873-8048.
More blog posts:
Bank Successfully Defeats FMLA, ADA Lawsuit Brought by Tennessee Teller with Lupus, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, Sept. 7, 2016
Employer’s Demand of Psych Exam for Nurse Did Not Trigger ADA Violation, Sixth Circuit Rules, Atlanta Employment Attorneys Blog, April 20, 2016