Firing after FMLA leave makes ADA request irrelevant

The FMLA allows eligible employees up to 12 weeks’ unpaid leave per year to deal with serious health conditions. The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for disabled employees so they can perform the essential functions of their jobs.

Courts have interpreted the ADA reasonable accommodations clause to mean employees may be entitled to time off as an accommodation.

That means employers sometimes find themselves in tricky situations: An employee who has exhausted FMLA leave cannot return to work yet, but might be able to after more time off as an ADA accommodation. In effect, the ADA may extend leave if the employee is disabled.

But a new case shows that an employer’s quick action may stop the clock. Here’s how: Discharging the employee as soon as it is clear she can’t return from FMLA leave, or considering her failure to report as a voluntary resignation means she’s no longer an employee. If she didn’t request more time off as an ADA accommodation before her leave expired, she’s out of luck.

Recent case: Eleanor Lafata worked for the Church of Christ Home for the Aged as a staff nurse. After a series of on-the-job injuries, she had to take 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Because she had not entirely recovered, Lafata could not return to her job. That’s when the nursing home sent her immediate notice that it considered her failure to report to work a voluntary resignation.

FMLA Compliance D

Lafata wrote back, asking for a reasonable accommodation of either more time off or a modification of her job responsibilities. But the court said she was too late. Because she was no longer an employee, she wasn’t entitled to accommodations. (Lafata v. Church of Christ Home for the Aged, No. 05-CV-72882, ED MI, 2007)

Final note: This case may sound hardhearted, but if Lafata had asked for accommodations sooner, it might have turned out differently. Treat any request for accommodations before FMLA leave has expired as you would any other under the ADA.