Employment Law Daily Employee who requested third leave, even with specific end date, not a qualified individual
Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Employee who requested third leave, even with specific end date, not a qualified individual

By Kathleen Kapusta, J.D.

Neither the ADA nor FEHA required an employer to extend an employee’s medical leave indefinitely until she was able to return to work, a federal court in California explained, granting summary judgment against the federal and state-law disability claims of an employee with a broken ankle who argued that additional leave, as set out in her third doctor’s note stating she would be temporarily disabled through a specific date, was a reasonable accommodation. Summary judgment was also granted in favor of a second defendant that, the employee alleged, jointly employed her (Ruiz v. Paradigmworks Group, Inc., February 22, 2018, Bencivengo, C.).

The outreach and admissions counselor worked for Paradigmworks Group (PGI), a company that provided outreach admission services pursuant to a subcontract with Cornerstone Solutions. She was responsible for recruiting, interviewing, and processing prospective employees, providing customer service and answering phone calls and emails, and working with agencies and schools. Pursuant to the subcontract with Cornerstone, PGI was required to have five admissions counselors at the office where the employee worked.

Injury and doctor’s notes. In November 2015, the employee fell and broke her ankle. Pursuant to her doctor’s note, she was temporarily totally disabled from November 16 through November 20. On November 20, her doctor provided a second note stating she would be temporarily totally disabled through February 22, 2016. While she was out, PGI provided her with unpaid leave through February 22, 2016, and she received disability benefits from the state.

On February 18, 2016, her doctor provided a third note stating that she would be temporarily totally disabled through April 1, 2016. Eleven days later, PGI fired her.

Qualified individual. Addressing her disability discrimination claims, the court noted that Ninth Circuit and California law concerning whether a plaintiff is a “qualified individual with a disability” under the ADA or FEHA is somewhat inconsistent. Based on the frequently stated standard—that an individual is qualified if, with or without reasonable accommodation, she can perform the essential functions of the employment position—common sense would indicate that if an employee is not able to be at work, she cannot be a qualified individual, said the court. Applying that standard here, the employee, who was unable to perform any of the essential functions of her job when she was fired, was not a qualified individual.

Not so cut and dry. Yet the analysis, said the court, “is not so cut and dry.” While the Ninth Circuit has noted that “[a]n employer may… lawfully discharge an employee who ‘is unable to perform his or her essential duties… even with reasonable accommodations,’” it has also held that “an extended medical leave, or an extension of an existing leave period, may be a reasonable accommodation if it does not pose an undue hardship on the employer.” An employer, however, is not required to provide an indefinite leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation, the court noted, observing that an individual who cannot perform any of the essential functions of her position may nevertheless be “qualified” if she will be able to perform those functions at some definite point in the future, and if it would not pose an undue hardship on the employer to give the individual leave until that time arrives.

Reasonable accommodation. Here, the employee argued that additional leave until April 1 would have been a reasonable accommodation. But PGI had already given her two prior leave periods and she had been unable to return at the end of either of them, the court pointed out, and there was no evidence she would have been ready to return to work on April 1. Based on her inability to return to work at the end of the other two periods, PGI had no reason to believe she would be able to return to work on April 1. Indeed, that she continued to receive disability benefits from the state until September 2016 indicated that her disability did not end on April 1. Thus, the undisputed evidence was that the employee was totally disabled when PGI terminated her employment, and there was no evidence that a finite end date to her total disability was known when she was terminated.

Although the employee disputed PGI’s contention that additional leave would have imposed an undue burden because PGI’s contract with Cornerstone required five admissions counselors, the question presented was not whether an accommodation imposes an undue hardship, but whether the accommodation requested was reasonable and thus required in the first place. Here, there was no dispute she was totally disabled and that no accommodation would have allowed her to perform her job and neither the ADA nor FEHA required PGI to extend her medical leave indefinitely until she was able to return to work.

Cornerstone. The employee alleged she was jointly employed by Cornerstone but the complaint did not assert the ADA claims against it. Nor did it make any allegations unique to any of the defendants, simply referring to them jointly as “Defendants.” For its part, Cornerstone filed a notice of joinder to PGI’s summary judgment motion and a separate motion for summary judgment arguing that in addition to all of the reasons argued by PGI, it was entitled to summary judgment because it never employed the plaintiff and therefore never took an adverse employment action against her.

Although the employee objected to the way in which it joined the summary judgment motion, the court noted that the premise of her case was that Cornerstone and PGI jointly employed her and thus that they were jointly liable for her termination. Therefore, said the court, all of PGI’s arguments for summary judgment were equally applicable to Cornerstone and it was entitled to summary judgment as well.

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