What you need to know:

The First Circuit recently held that an employer does not have to grant an employee’s request for open-ended or indefinite leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The employer’s termination of an employee who could not provide a likely return to work date following her exhaustion of her FMLA leave was therefore lawful.

What you need to do:

The court’s ruling provides helpful guidance to employers who face requests for indefinite leaves of absence. Employers should await anticipated further guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with respect to when other forms of leave might constitute a reasonable accommodation for disabled employees under the ADA.

The Decision

The employee in Henry v. The United Bank was a commercial credit analyst who had exhausted her 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. She argued that the bank owed her a continuing duty to accommodate her disability by allowing her to remain out on leave “until further notice” under the ADA.

In a welcome ruling for employers, the court found that the employee’s request for an open-ended or indefinite leave was unreasonable as a matter of law. The court found that neither the ADA nor Massachusetts disability discrimination law requires employers to allow such open-ended leave requests, or to follow a “wait-and-see approach” with no clear idea of when, if ever, the employee might be able to return to work.

Absent a reasonable accommodation request from the employee, the court said, the bank had no obligation to establish that the employee’s request would be unduly burdensome, or to further engage in an informal interactive accommodation process.

In addition, the court ruled that the employee had failed to show that she was terminated in retaliation for having taken FMLA leave. The court noted the strain on the employee’s co-workers and supervisor who had to perform the employee’s duties while she was on leave, and the expected increase in commercial loan responsibilities. The court also cited the bank’s testimony about the unavailability of an internal temporary replacement for the employee, and the confidentiality and training issues that potentially could arise with the use of a temporary employee.

What the Decision Means for Employers

The court’s ruling in Henry is helpful in drawing a line beyond which requests for leave are unreasonable per se. With that said, the extent to which employers may have a duty to accommodate disabled employees’ requests for shorter and/or more definite leaves is still an uncertain and challenging area of the law.

In recognition of this fact, the EEOC has held public hearings to discuss issues surrounding leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation. Guidelines are expected to be issued at some future date, but the EEOC has declined to give any indication of when they might be expected. Employers must, therefore, continue to be sensitive to the potential pitfalls of simply following a blanket, “one size fits all” leave policy for employees, and should instead evaluate leave requests from employees with protected disabilities on their own individual merits.