Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) operates an inpatient hospital and several outpatient medical facilities.  PHCS had a leave policy whereby employee leaves were limited to a maximum of 12 weeks, tracking the FMLA.  If an employee was not eligible for FMLA leave, they might be fired after being out for a short time, and those who needed more than 12 weeks may be fired as well.

The EEOC filed suit because this leave policy discriminates against those who may need additional leave time as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  By maintaining a fixed leave policy, PHCS was attempting to circumvent the interactive process.  Under the terms of the consent agreement entered into by the parties, PHCS will pay $1.35 million and will undertake significant remedial measures.  The money will be distributed to employees who were wrongfully terminated under the leave policy.  PHCS also agreed to provide training to its workforce regarding the ADA, as well as refrain from subjecting employees to discipline for ADA-related absences or requiring employees to present a fitness for duty certification after returning from disability leave stating they are able to return to work without any restriction.

The EEOC declared the settlement a powerful message that fixed leave policies like PHCS's limit the ability to engage in the interactive process and determine whether leave might be a reasonable accommodation for a particular employee.  A leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation under the law, and an employer may not unilaterally take this option off the table across the board.

Note:

Schools who maintain a regular, uniformly applied policy may require employees to present a fitness for duty certificate before returning to work from FMLA leave that was taken for the employee's own serious health condition. The school must let the employee know when the leave is designated that a fitness for duty certificate will be required upon return.  Under the ADA, fitness for duty examinations are permitted if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.

EEOC v. Princeton HealthCare System, Civil Action No. 3:10-cv-04126. For further information, seehttp://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/newsroom/release/6-30-14.cfm