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Zenaida Garcia-Ayala missed a lot of work while battling breast cancer. Over a dozen years, she used salary continuation and short-term disability benefits 14 times, in addition to her sick leave.

Her company's policy reserves employees' jobs for up to one year while they're out on disability leave. So after Garcia had missed more than a year, she was fired in June 1996. She asked for an extension until July 30 but was denied it. Her doctor finally cleared her to work in August. Temps filled her secretarial job during her leave and after her firing.

While the company argued that extending leave beyond its own policy limit would be unreasonable, the 1st Circuit flatly rejected that idea. It ruled for Garcia, saying the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to perform an "individualized assessment" to decide if extra leave would place an undue hardship on the company. In fact, the court said no request for leave, even indefinite leave, is unreasonable on its face. (Garcia-Ayala v. Lederle Parenterals Inc., No. 98-2291, 1st Cir., 2000)

Advice: Consider revising your company policies and collective bargaining agreements that compel "automatic" termination after a specific period of disability leave. Before terminating an employee on extended disability leave, use these checkpoints to tell whether the leave would cause you "undue hardship": 

  • Has the employee indicated when she might be able to return to work, or has she simply demanded that her job be held open indefinitely? 
  • Are the employee's absences erratic and/or unexplained? 
  • Will the employee be unqualified upon her return to work? 
  • Was the employee hired to complete a specific task? 

Remember to consider several other laws that may come into play when you fire an employee on disability leave, including the Family and Medical Leave Act and state discrimination and workers' compensation statutes.

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