Disabled workers may need accommodations beyond FMLA leave

Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), companies with more than 50 employees must allow workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to deal with medical issues. But if a worker isn’t ready to return after 12 weeks, employers should talk to an employment attorney before taking any disciplinary action. That’s because an employee who’s used all of his or her FMLA leave may still be entitled to more leave time as an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In a recent Massachusetts case, bank employee Amanda LePete took 12 weeks of FMLA leave when she had a baby. While she was out she developed post-partum depression. As her return date approached she was still suffering symptoms so she sought medical help and tried to extend her leave. When her counselor couldn’t pin down a specific date when she might be able to return the bank sent her a letter setting a hard deadline, telling her she’d be fired if she didn’t return on that date. Panicked, she and her attorney appealed to human resources to extend her leave but the request was denied. She subsequently got a letter telling her she was fired.

LaPete filed a disability discrimination claim against the bank under the ADA and state anti-discrimination law.

The bank argued that it had gone above and beyond in extending her leave, since she was ultimately out 17 weeks before being terminated. It also claimed LaPete made no attempt to engage in an “interactive dialogue” regarding her return to work and that she was trying to turn her absence into an “indefinite leave.”

But a hearing officer with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination found that she’d done enough to inform the bank about her condition, and that even if her leave time was up the ADA and state law required the bank to make “reasonable accommodations” for her disability.

By setting a strict time constraint, the bank failed to do so. The officer also rejected the notion that LaPete was seeking indefinite leave, and said that if the bank had only sought to communicate with her it would have realized she was just trying to extend her leave long enough to see her doctor.  As a result, the bank had to pay emotional distress damages and lost wages and was ordered to train its managers and supervisors on disability discrimination.