Why it matters

Indefinite leave was not required as an accommodation for an employee being treated for cancer, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. Mirelle Vangas was diagnosed with cancer in March 2010 and immediately went on 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. When she suffered treatment complications, her employer extended her leave until August 30. Just prior to her scheduled return, she began experiencing new symptoms and was unable to return to work, leaving a voicemail for her supervisor that she did not know when she would be back to work. Vangas was terminated when she did not report for work as scheduled. She then sued under New York state law and a jury awarded her damages of more than $500,000. Arguing that it had not violated its duty to provide a reasonable accommodation—particularly as the plaintiff had received five months of medical leave—the employer appealed. A three-judge panel agreed and reversed the verdict. Vangas was incapable of performing the essential functions of her job at the time of termination, the court noted, so her messages could only be construed as a request for indefinite leave, "which as a matter of law is not a reasonable accommodation."

Detailed discussion

In March 2010, Mirelle Vangas was diagnosed with cancer. An employee of Montefiore Medical Center since 1989, she went on immediate Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, with her three-month leave period ending in June. The FMLA forms she filled out for her employer indicated that she would need to be medically cleared prior to returning to work.

Vangas was briefly hospitalized in June due to a complication with her treatment and the parties moved her return date until July 19. She did not return on that date and Montefiore unilaterally extended her leave. Vangas's doctor then indicated that she could return to work on August 30. But in late August, she began to experience new symptoms including blurred vision, headaches, dizziness, and facial swelling.

One week prior to her scheduled return, Vangas visited her doctor, who filled out additional FMLA paperwork stating that the duration of her condition was "unknown." The day before she was supposed to return, Vangas left a voicemail message saying she would not be returning on August 30. When she did not report for work, Vangas was terminated.

She filed suit alleging violations of New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL) and a federal jury found in her favor, awarding damages of $541,000. Montefiore appealed and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that no reasonable accommodation was possible under the circumstances.

To succeed on her NYSHRL claim, Vangas had to prove that she had a disability, the employer had notice of her disability, with reasonable accommodation she could perform the essential functions of her job, and the employer refused to make such accommodation.

While the plaintiff had no problem demonstrating the first two requirements, she failed to establish the others, the panel said. "At the time of her final request for leave and termination, Vangas was incapable of performing the essential functions of her job," the court wrote. "She was not medically cleared to return to work and admitted that she could not do so. Therefore, at that time, the only possible accommodation was an extension of leave, as she was incapable of working, in any capacity, whether at home or in the office."

Vangas did not request an extension of leave for a specific time period, the court noted, but simply informed her employer that she was not feeling well, would not be returning to work on August 30, and could not give Montefiore a date for her return to work. The correct interpretation of these actions: a request for "an indefinite leave extension, which as a matter of law is not a reasonable accommodation," the panel said.

The court was not persuaded by Vangas' reliance on a prior Second Circuit case, Graves v. Finch Pruyn & Co., where a plaintiff requested "a couple of weeks" additional leave and the court found it to be a reasonable accommodation. "To hold that Vangas's vague statements were not an unreasonable request for indefinite leave would extend the Gravesholding to the point where it would conflict with New York law," the court said. "It is clear from the record that on August 29, 2010, when Vangas informed [Montefiore] that she would not be returning to work the next day, she had no idea how long she would be out of work or how long it would take to determine how long she would be out of work."

No finite amount of leave was requested "and it was unknown whether after an extension of leave Vangas would be able to return to work; her symptoms and prognosis were too uncertain," the panel added, whether in the office or at home. "Because there was no reasonable accommodation requested that would have allowed Vangas to perform the essential functions of her job, [Montefiore] did not violate the NYSHRL in terminating Vangas and no reasonable juror could have concluded otherwise."

To read the decision in Vangas v. Montefiore Medical Center, click here.