Today my colleague Chris Engler returns with a post that tackles a recent case that explores what should happen when an employee has exhausted her FMLA leave.  Case closed? Well, not exactly, as Chris explains.  

Most readers have heard the admonition that “No good deed goes unpunished.”  (Readers might be less aware that the phrase was coined by Connecticut’s own former U.S. Representative, Clare Boothe Luce.)

A recent federal decision in Wanamaker v. Town of Westport Board of Education reminds us that this warning is more than just a clever saying.

The plaintiff, an elementary school computer teacher, became pregnant with an expected due date in late April 2009.  Many months into the pregnancy, her  doctor ordered her to bed rest due to complications with her pregnancy.  The school district granted her FMLA leave.

So far, so good.

However, this story took an unfortunate turn after the teacher gave birth in April 2009. Suffice it to say that both the employee and her newborn daughter began to suffer from a number of severe complications and ailments.

As a result of these medical issues, the teacher couldn’t immediately return to work.  In fact, she wasn’t cleared to return to work at all until the following spring, and she ended up missing the rest of that school year.

Here’s where it gets contentious.  

It’s now the summer of 2010.  Ms. Wanamaker has not worked in roughly 16 months.  The school district offered her a job as a regular classroom teacher at her current salary for the 2010-11 school year.  She wanted to be a computer teacher again instead.  Ms. Wanamaker argued that she wasn’t medically able to work as a classroom teacher because it was more physically demanding.

After the school district eventually terminated her for, among other things, job abandonment, Ms. Wanamaker filed suit under the FMLA, the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and state anti-discrimination laws.

(If the case sounds familiar so far, you’re not having déjà vu.  A number of bloggers (for example, here, here, and here) covered an earlier court ruling in this case that prevented the district from getting a quick win on the FMLA claims.  The issue there was whether the two teaching jobs were equivalent, and all the court said was that they might be.  As it turned out, in the more recent decision, the court neatly sidestepped the issue of whether the two teaching gigs were equivalent under the FMLA.)

Now for the bad news for employers.  This is where the “good deed” quote fits in.

The court refused to grant summary judgment to the school district on the ADA claim because a jury could find that the teaching position offered to Ms. Wanamaker was worse than her previous computer teaching position, even though the salary was the same.  The judge also said that the district knew of her medical condition and therefore needed to initiate a discussion of reasonable accommodations under the ADA.

So what does all this mean for employers?

First, it confirms that extended leaves of absences might be reasonable accommodations that are required under the ADA.  The court recognized that the school district’s grant of an extended leave was a reasonable accommodation, although it’s not clear if the district intended it as such.

Second, it reaffirms the view that reassignment to another position with identical salary, benefits, and hours might still be an adverse employment action.  The court cited the fact that a classroom teacher needs to work with the same group of students all the time as a negative aspect of that role that the computer teacher position didn’t have.  (We’ll leave it to the teachers to comment on this one.)

Third, it raises the alarming prospect that courts will label an employer’s concerns about excessive absenteeism (here, the superintendent had made efforts to address this issue) as discrimination.  The court didn’t do so here, but it did conclude that a jury could do so.  The court said the superintendent showed “animosity concerning teacher absences.”

One final point about the court’s ruling is that it seems to use the district’s completely voluntary extension of Ms. Wanamaker’s sick leave against the school.  Had the school simply terminated her as soon as her FMLA leave ran out, she wouldn’t have been cleared to return to work and may not have had any viable ADA claims.  This seems like a disincentive that the court probably didn’t intend.

But it just goes to show that Ms. Luce’s idiom hasn’t lost its truth.