The Connecticut Appellate Court today released an important disability discrimination decision that gives employers some support for employees who struggle with employees who ask for “accommodations” for an indefinite leave for a medical condition.
The case ostensibly addresses the request for “indefinite leave” which I’ve previously talked about it in prior posts.
But the case boils down to a familiar set of facts for employers. An employee who one day says, “I need to take 30 days off for a medical condition” and leaves the employer to twist without further response. As explained by the court:
The plaintiff informed the defendant that she would be taking a leave of absence, did not provide the defendant with any time frame for her return, and did not respond to the defendant’s subsequent attempts to contact her regarding her request for leave. The plaintiff effectively asked the defendant ‘‘to hold [her] position open indefinitely while [she] attempt[ed] to recover. . . .’’
Under these circumstances, the court said that the Plaintiff cannot establish even a prima facie case of discrimination because she cannot show that she “requested a reasonable accommodation that enabled her to perform the essential functions of the job”.
In doing so, the state court reviewed federal law and noted that “[R]easonable accommodation does not require [an employer] to wait indefinitely
for [the employee’s] medical conditions to be corrected . . . .’’
In this particular case, the court said, the plaintiff, prior to her departure, informed her supervisor that she would be taking leave for ‘‘over thirty days depending on my lung condition . . . .’’ At a subsequent deposition, the court went on to say, the plaintiff was asked, with respect to her request for leave, that ‘‘you didn’t know how long you were going to be out, correct?’’ The plaintiff responded, ‘‘[c]orrect.’’
The forms submitted by the employee at the time were confusing and the Plaintiff did not respond after requests by certified and regular mail by the employer for more information. When the employee was told to submit information by a date certain and did not do so, the employer just went ahead and fired her. The court upheld that termination.
For employers, the case offers some helpful reminders:
- Reasonable accommodation is an interactive process. So long as the employer holds up its end, courts will be more inclined to support the employer in the end.
- Seeking medical documentation from employees regarding their requested leaves is both necessary and essential to defending a claim where the documentation is vague. Don’t hesitate to followup and set firm deadlines to the employee to provide the information.
- As always, seek legal counsel to help navigate through this and work through any issues regarding termination.
Employers may feel like anti-discrimination laws are rigid, but there is built-in flexibility for employers if they know where to look.
The case, Thomson v. Department of Social Services, can be downloaded here.