Employers sometimes ask whether or not they can offer a leave of absence to an employee instead of agreeing to a worksite accommodation that the employee has requested. To the frustration of many employers, the answer is a clear “maybe.” Two recent cases address this issue and reach different results. First, in Smith v. DuPage County Sheriff (N.D. Ill. 6/5/17), the court concluded that paid leave was not a reasonable accommodation where the employee had proposed several light duty assignments. And, in contrast, in Young v. Peralta Community College District (N.D. California 6/7/17), the court held that a combination of paid medical leave and working from home was a reasonable accommodation even though the employee was requesting an accommodation that would allow her to work  on-site. 

Medical Leave is not a reasonable accommodation. In Smith, there were four employee-plaintiffs who all sustained injuries in the course of performing their duties as deputy sheriffs. Each of the employees asked to return to work and be assigned to light duty roles. However, the Sheriff’s office did not grant these requests at the time they were made, and the employees remained out on paid medical leave until either they were able to return to full duty or a role that the Sheriff’s office deemed appropriate for light duty became available. The employees argued that there were other appropriate light duty roles to which they should have been assigned at the time they were released to light duty status. Under the Sheriff’s employment policy, if an employee is off work after using 12 weeks of FMLA leave, the employee is responsible for the entire health insurance premium.  The Sheriff’s office argued that as a matter of law they reasonably accommodated plaintiffs through a combination of paid leave and light duty assignments once appropriate light duty roles became available. The court rejected this argument on the ground that the employees were not able to retain their full benefits while on leave. The court noted that while the ADA does not entitle a disabled employee to the accommodation of his or her choice, “determining whether an accommodation is reasonable depends, to a significant extent, upon determining whether the employer has acceded to the disabled employee’s request.”

Medical leave is a reasonable accommodation. However, in Young, the court ruled differently. There, the employee had worked as a Public Information Officer for 16 years and, over that time, experienced a number of health challenges, including physical injuries that resulted in several corrective surgeries and cancer. The court noted that during her employment the District accommodated her with medical leave, modified duties and ergonomic equipment.  The employee submitted medical documentation stating that she needed a scooter or motorized wheelchair  to move about campus at work. The District initially denied the accommodation the ground that the particular campus where she worked created “safety hazards” and “logistical requirements” with regard to the use of the wheelchair. The employee was subsequently transferred to a different campus and her new manager told her “this is a flat campus” and that she “could use a wheelchair here.” The employee re-injured herself and was not able to work. Ultimately, she retired because she was concerned that she might lose her job and the possibility of lifetime medical benefits. 

The employee argued that the District’s failure to grant her request to use a wheelchair was a denial of a reasonable accommodation. The court disagreed, emphasizing that an employer is not obligated to provide an employee the accommodation he or she requests or prefers and that the employer need only provide “some reasonable accommodation.” The court cited holding that both paid and unpaid medical leave can be a reasonable accommodation where it would permit an employee upon return to return to the employee’s job position. The court also noted that the employer had permitted the employee to work from home and that this, as well, was a reasonable accommodation.

No liability for failure to engage in interactive process. The employee in Young also argued that the District should be held liable for failing to engage in the interactive process.  The court rejected this argument stating that “the interactive process is a means to an end, and a defendant is not liable under the ADA for failure to engage in the interactive process if the plaintiff obtained a reasonable accommodation.”

Lessons for employers? The law is unsettled in this area, and employers should be cautious about refusing to grant a request for a worksite accommodation and instead offering only the option of a medical leave. The goal of the ADA is for employers to provide accommodations to help employees perform the essential functions of their job positions. Accordingly, it would seem that there is a good argument that if an employee proposes a worksite accommodation that is reasonable and does not impose undue hardship that an employer has an obligation under the ADA to provide that accommodation and not insist that the employee remain out on leave until fully healed.  In addition, an employee may be able to show that forcing him or her to remain on medical leave may negatively impact skills or advancement opportunities.