Since 2009, the EEOC has sued numerous employers who have terminated employees pursuant to an inflexible leave policy, a policy that provides a defined amount of leave and results in an employee’s termination once the employee exhausts that leave. The EEOC argues that such policies are unlawful because they do not allow for additional leave to be provided as a reasonable accommodation.
And then along came Hwang. Hwang had used all of the six months of leave under her employer’s inflexible leave policy. When her request for additional leave was denied, she sued, arguing that her employer needed to provide additional leave as a reasonable accommodation. The Tenth Circuit held that the very policy decried as blatantly unlawful by the EEOC was fair, lawful and actually protects employees with disabilities. Hwang v. Kansas State University (10th Cir. May 29, 2014). “After all,” the court said, “reasonable accommodations … are all about enabling employees to work, not to not work.” (Emphasis added). See our Hwang post here.
What has happened since Hwang? One month after Hwang, on June 30, 2014, according to an EEOC press release, Princeton Health Care System settled an inflexible leave policy lawsuit brought by the EEOC by paying $1.35 million. The System also agreed, among other things, not to adopt an inflexible leave policy, i.e., that type of policy found lawful in Hwang. PCHS had provided its employees up to 12 weeks of leave, the maximum amount provided by the FMLA, according to the EEOC. The EEOC’s press release also notes that employers have paid more than $34 million to resolve lawsuits the EEOC has brought concerning leave and attendance policies.
More recently, on July 10, 2014, the EEOC sued Dialysis Clinic, Inc. for terminating a nurse who had exhausted her employer’s inflexible leave policy (four months of leave). EEOC v. Dialysis Clinic, Inc. (E.D.CA). At the time of termination, according to the EEOC press release, the employee had been “cleared by her doctor to return to work without restrictions in less than two months.”
The apparent conflict between Hwang and the EEOC’s view that inflexible leave policies are indefensible exacerbates the challenge facing employers in search of the answer to the most vexing ADA question–how much job-protected leave must an employer provide under the ADA? More than three years have passed since the EEOC held a public hearing on leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and suggested it might issue guidance on the topic. We posted previously that waiting for that guidance is like waiting for Beckett’s Godot, where those waiting come to the realization at the end of each day that he is not coming today, he might come tomorrow. Employers continue to wait. In the words of Beckett’s Estragon, “such is life.”