In the latest example of the broad reach of the New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), the New York Court of Appeals ruled that no requested accommodation by a disabled employee — even a request for indefinite leave — can be per se unreasonable under that law. In Romanello v. Intesa Sanpaolo, S.p.A., 22 N.Y.2d 881, 976 N.Y.S.426 (2013), the employment of the plaintiff, a banker suffering from depression who had exhausted all available leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, was terminated after he failed to provide his employer with a return date for work. The plaintiff sued, claiming discrimination on the basis of his disability in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law and NYCHRL.
The Court rejected the plaintiff’s State law claim, finding that indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation under that law. The Court explained that, under the State law, “disability” is defined as “limited to disabilities which, upon the provision of reasonable accommodations, do not prevent the complainant from performing in a reasonable manner the activities involved in the job or occupation sought or held.” Executive Law § 292(21). Because the plaintiff failed to provide his employer with any indication into when he planned to return to work and his complaint “merely” alleged that he sought “a continued leave of absence to allow him to recover and return to work,” he failed to state a cause of action.
However, because the definition of “disability” in the NYCHRL does not require that the individual be able to perform his job in a reasonable manner or even mention the concept of reasonable accommodation, the plaintiff’s City law claim survived. The NYCHRL defines “disability” solely in terms of impairments, and an employer is required to “make reasonable accommodation to enable a person with a disability to satisfy the essential requisites of a job . . . provided that the disability is known or should have been known by the [employer].” Administrative Code of City of NY §§ 8-102(16); 8-107(15)(a). The employer has the burden of proving hardship and the “‘pleading obligation’ to prove that the employee ‘could not, with reasonable accommodation, satisfy the essential requisites of the job.’” The Court therefore found that the defendant could not make a showing in a motion to dismiss that the plaintiff could not perform his essential job functions without an accommodation.
Employers are reminded that their obligations will differ under federal, state, and city law. Employers covered by the NYCHRL are urged to engage in an interactive process with the employee seeking an accommodation and then to carefully analyze the facts and individual circumstances of each request before making a termination decision. Employers should document all proposed accommodations and why certain requested accommodations would be ineffective or constitute an undue hardship. Before terminating an employee, employers should investigate all potential accommodations.
Critically, it cannot be assumed that a request for indefinite leave will be deemed unreasonable under New York City law. Employers also are reminded that leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, where applicable, provides a floor for the minimum amount of required leave, and that an employer must consider the accommodation of additional unpaid leave under other federal laws as well as state and city law after the FMLA leave runs out.
The bottom line: Employers covered by the NYCHRL should not deem any requested accommodation as categorically unreasonable.