One of the most difficult issues an HR professional or in-house employment counsel faces is how to deal with an employee who cannot return to work after FMLA leave expires. Is additional leave beyond 12 weeks required? The answer is almost always ‘yes.’ But how much leave are we obligated to provide? And what if the employee already has taken months of leave and doesn’t really know when she’ll return?

Take, for instance, a situation involving Penelope.  We’ll call her Pippy, for short.

Pippy suffered from sarcoidosis (inflammation of the lungs) and arthritis related to her condition. In September, she inquired about reducing her work schedule as an accommodation for her condition. Before her employer responded, however, Pippy suffered an injury that aggravated her medical condition.  The injury caused Pippy to take time off in December and January, and in February, she stopped working.

Between February and May, Pippy’s employer sent her multiple letters requesting documentation of the injury, but she didn’t respond. In June, her employer told her that she either had to report to work or provide medical documentation supporting her need for leave. Soon thereafter, Pippy sent her employer a “disability certificate” signed by her doctor indicating that the injury suffered a few months earlier left her “totally disabled” and she would remain so “indefinitely.” In contrast to her physician, however, the employee told her employer that she “hoped” to return by September 2007. Unwilling to wait any longer for Pippy’s uncertain return, her employer terminated her employment.

Like a typical, litigious former employee, Pippy filed suit.  It didn’t last long.  Pippy forgot one basic principle — an employer is never required to provide an employee an indefinite leave of absence. Particularly after the employer has already provided a reasonable amount of leave as an accommodation to help the employee return to work.

Like many others have done in similar situations, this court dismissed Pippy’s ADA claim in large part because her employer provided her a reasonable amount of leave (here, three months), and she could not provide a reasonable estimation of her return to work.  In other words, she was asking for an open-ended, indefinite leave of absence.  Courts almost always will support an employer’s right to terminate employment in instances like these.  Other employers should take note — when an employee cannot provide a reasonable estimate of when they will again be able to perform their essential job duties, their ADA claims skate on thin ice.  Minter v. District of Columbia (pdf)

But let’s not be too confident…

In situations like these, it is imperative that employers engage in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether any accommodation is available to help the employee return to work. When employers don’t, they risk significant liability under the ADA.

Just ask the Wayne Township Fire Department.  The Fire Department hired Kristine as a reserve paramedic in February 2009 and as a full-time paramedic a few months later, knowing that she had Type 1 diabetes. While on the job, Kristine’s blood-sugar levels dropped on two occasions while she was on duty — once while she was driving and again while she was caring for a patient in the back of an ambulance. Kristine told her supervisor and other officials what had happened.  Shortly thereafter, she was told she could not return to work without approval from the agency’s medical director, who refused to return her to work because she could not “guarantee” any further incidents. Declining to engage in any interactive process, the Fire Department simply terminated Kristine’s employment.

That cha-ching sound is the Fire Department’s cash register, which opened wide to the tune of $725,000 to pay Kristine for its ADA violations and her attorney’s fees.  Rednour v. Wayne Township Fire Dept.(pdf)  One of the “fundamental” issues for the jury’s verdict in favor of Kristine? The mere fact that the employer did not engage in the ADA’s interactive process.

Think about it: Three-quarters of a million dollars simply because the employer failed to engage in the interactive process.  What a waste.

In her analysis of Kristine’s case, Miriam Rosen identifies several steps that an employer should take to identify accommodations in situations like these.  I really liked her suggestions, so I paraphrase them here:

  • Obtain information from the employee and employee’s physician (through the employee, of course) to understand the medical condition and how it affects the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions.
  • Identify the essential job functions that the employee must perform with or without an accommodation. Up-to-date job descriptions are key to this process.
  • Do not make assumptions about whether the employee can or cannot perform the essential job functions. Rather, engage in a dialogue with the employee about what modifications would help the employee perform the essential job functions. Consider whether other options for accommodation are available if the suggested accommodations are not reasonable.
  • Determine if it is possible to provide reasonable accommodations that allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the position. Remember that accommodations such as a leave of absence or, if available, light duty may allow the employee to perform job functions within a reasonable time.
  • If an accommodation is identified, put it into place. If it is not possible to provide a reasonable accommodation, communicate that to the employee as well and any employment related consequences.
  • Document the process and outcomes to establish that obligations to engage in the interactive process have been met.

Engage in a meaningful interactive process. Conduct an individualized assessment. Be creative in providing accommodations to keep the employee on the job.  Avoid liability.

Easier said than done, right?