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Go ahead and grant ‘disability leave’— but don’t assume employee is disabled

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in Employment Law,Firing,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Employees sometimes assume that if their employer approves a request for disability leave, they must be disabled and are therefore entitled to reasonable accommodations when they return to work. That’s simply not the case.

Many times, what’s called “disability leave” is really FMLA leave, based on the employee’s serious health condition. But those conditions are frequently temporary and wouldn’t qualify as a disability under the ADA.

Employers are free to analyze the returning employee’s condition based on the ADA’s standards and approve or deny reasonable accommodations requests depending on whether the employee’s condition is serious enough to constitute an ADA disability.

Recent case: Shirley Jamison worked for Campbell Chain Cooper Tools as a forklift operator. The company has a strict attendance policy, and Jamison was frequently on the edge of termination because of unscheduled absences.

Then she injured her back in an accident away from work and asked for time off. The company granted her 12 weeks of FMLA leave. When she still wasn’t ready to return, she asked for more time off, and the company authorized additional unpaid leave.

Jamison finally returned to work with no restrictions. Within a week, she had missed work again. The company counted this as an unexcused absence and warned her that she would be fired if she missed any more work. When she called in sick again, the company terminated her.

She sued, claiming her firing was illegal because her residual back pain constituted a disability.

The company asked the court to dismiss the case on the premise that Jamison wasn’t disabled. She argued that she was disabled since she had been previously approved for both FMLA and extended unpaid medical leave.

The court agreed with the company. It explained that having a serious medical condition under the FMLA isn’t always the same thing as being disabled under the ADA. Employees can’t simply use their employer’s leave approval to establish a disability. They still have to show that their alleged impairment substantially limits one or more major life activities.

Jamison couldn’t do that since she had been cleared to work and couldn’t point to a single other way in which her back injury impaired her daily life. (Jamison v. Campbell Chain Cooper Tools, No. 1:07-CV-0324, MD PA, 2009)

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