Hospital not obligated to accommodate employee fighting cancer with indefinite leave
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Monday, May 23, 2016

Hospital not obligated to accommodate employee fighting cancer with indefinite leave

By Dave Strausfeld, J.D. A hospital was not obligated to grant additional medical leave to an employee being treated for cancer who phoned in on the day before she was scheduled to return to work after five months of medical leave and said she needed more leave, held the Second Circuit, reversing the trial court’s denial of the hospital’s motion for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL). The employee’s phone call could only be construed as a request for indefinite leave, which was not a reasonable accommodation under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL). With regard to her claim under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), she was not covered by the statute because she did not live or work in New York City, and it was not enough that her job required her to speak with patients in New York City, as the district court correctly held (Vangas v. Montefiore Medical Center, May 19, 2016, Restani, J.). Fired when she did not return to work as scheduled. On March 25, 2010, a hospital utilization analyst was diagnosed with cancer. After meeting with her supervisors that same day, she immediately went on FMLA leave, with the 12 weeks of leave scheduled to end in June. When she had treatment complications, the hospital unilaterally extended her leave. Although she informed her supervisors she would be able to return to work on August 30, she began experiencing new symptoms including blurred vision and dizziness. The day before she was supposed to return to work, she left text and voicemail messages for her immediate supervisor, saying she was not feeling well, would not be returning the next day, and was following up with doctors. Her supervisor did not respond. When she failed to return to work on August 30, she was terminated that same day. The employee’s case proceeded to a jury only on her NYSHRL claim. The jury found in her favor and awarded her damages of $541,000 (subsequently reduced through remittitur to $440,000). New York State Human Rights Law. The hospital appealed the denial of its JMOL motion, arguing it had not violated its duty of reasonable accommodation under the NYSHRL. The Second Circuit agreed. At the time of her termination, the employee was incapable of performing the essential functions of her job, as she admitted. Therefore, at that time, the only possible accommodation was an extension of leave. But she did not request an extension of leave for a specific time period. Instead, she simply informed the hospital she was not feeling well and would not be returning to work as scheduled on August 30, and could not give the hospital a date for her return to work. Thus, she was requesting “an indefinite leave extension, which as a matter of law is not a reasonable accommodation,” the appeals court emphasized. Graves distinguished. The employee insisted she had made a reasonable request to extend her leave, citing the Second Circuit’s 2006 decision in Graves v. Finch Pruyn & Co. But Graves was “readily distinguishable,” because the plaintiff there requested “a couple of weeks,” which the court there interpreted to be a definite request for two additional weeks for a particular purpose, which was to see a specialist doctor. Here, by contrast, the request for leave was indefinite, and it was unknown when the employee would be able to return to work; her symptoms and prognosis were too uncertain. To hold that her “vague statements” were definite enough, the Second Circuit commented, would “extend the Graves holding to the point where” it would conflict with New York case law under the NYSHRL. In sum, the hospital did not violate the NYSHRL, and no reasonable juror could have concluded otherwise. Thus the district court erred in refusing to grant JMOL to the hospital on her NYSHRL claim. New York City Human Rights Law. The employee, who also appealed the lower court decision, argued she should have been allowed to proceed with her claim under the NYCHRL, but since she neither lived nor worked in New York City and could not meet the “impact” test adopted by the New York Court of Appeals, her claim was properly dismissed, the Second Circuit held. Under the “impact” test, she needed to demonstrate that her termination had an “impact” within NYC. The employee argued that her termination was felt in NYC because as a utilization analyst, she spoke with patients in NYC on the phone and those patients were impacted when she no longer worked with them. However, these “meager interactions with NYC residents” were not sufficient to bring her within the coverage of the NYC law. Under the NYCHRL, the impact of the employment action must be felt by the plaintiff in NYC, the appeals court stressed. To hold otherwise would mean that the NYCHRL “would cover employees who work at call centers outside the city and whose only contacts with NYC are phone conversations with persons in the city.” She worked in Yonkers, was supervised in Yonkers, was terminated in Yonkers, and did not allege she ever went to nearby NYC for work.

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