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Indefinite leave is not a ‘reasonable accommodation’

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Issue: How long must you accommodate medical-related leaves of absence?

Benefit: Court rulings give you legal backing to draw a line in the calendar.

Action: Don't let employees linger on leave indefinitely; keep in touch with the employees' doctors (and your lawyer).

Providing a leave of absence is one way to "reasonably accommodate" disabled employees. But the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) doesn't require you to wait forever for an employee's medical condition to improve to a point that would allow the person to return to work. It's not meant to be an open-ended demand.

Where can you draw the line? According to court-drafted guidelines, you aren't required to accommodate a leave of absence under ADA if:


  • The leave is extraordinarily long: a year or more.
  • Absences are so erratic that you don't know from day to day whether the worker will report.
  • The employee still isn't able to perform the essential functions of a job after returning from leave.
  • An employee who was hired primarily to perform certain duties by a deadline wouldn't be able to do so if granted the leave.


Recent case: County court worker Mark Wood suffered from cluster head-aches, which caused him to miss work frequently, often one to two months at a time. To accommodate his condition, the county granted many leaves of absence without pay. But when he continued to miss nearly five months of work during one year, the county fired him. He filed an ADA suit, but an appeals court sided with the county.

The court's reasoning: Wood was not covered under ADA because he couldn't perform the essential functions of the job, with or without a reasonable accommodation. Wood argued that a leave of absence was a reasonable accommodation. But a leave of absence with no foreseeable end date was not reasonable. (Wood v. Green, No. 02-12971, 11th Cir., 2003)

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