NEW CASE: Connecticut Court Finds Providing Indefinite Leave Is Not A Reasonable Accommodation

In a recent case, Thompson v. Department of Social Services, the Connecticut Appellate Court held that an employer is not required to grant an employee a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation where the employee requests an indefinite leave and does not respond to the employer’s request to contact her regarding her leave.

The Case

The plaintiff was a long-term employee of the Connecticut Department of Social Services and suffered from a chronic health condition that caused her to take medical leaves of absence (including FMLA leave) throughout her employment.

Following the expiration of an FMLA leave in February of 2013, the plaintiff left a note for the HR department advising that she would be taking additional medical leave starting the next day and lasting “over thirty days depending on my lung condition as I need to get well and my lungs better.”  The plaintiff did not speak to the HR Director in person, but left her contact information along with the instruction to “call me if you have any questions.”

The plaintiff also left the completed paperwork requesting additional leave under short-term disability policies.  However, the information on the two forms was conflicting.  On one form, the plaintiff stated that she was unable to return to work until reevaluated by her physician and that the physician expected “significant improvement in her medical condition” in one to two months. On the other form, the physician claimed that the plaintiff’s need for leave would be “ongoing” and she would be able to return to work “when reevaluated”, although no date was provided for the reevaluation.

Upon receipt of the note and the two forms, the HR department informed the plaintiff via certified mail that she was ineligible for extended leave because she did not provide sufficient information to support her need for additional leave.  The letter further advised the plaintiff that her current time off was unauthorized.  The letter also gave the plaintiff 15 days to provide additional medical certification to support her need for additional leave.

The plaintiff did not respond to this letter and her employment was terminated after the expiration of the 15-day period.  The plaintiff subsequently filed a lawsuit for disability discrimination.

The Holding

The Court that in this case the employer acted properly and that it was not required to provide her with an extended leave of absence when she had, for all intents and purposes, requested an indefinite leave of absence.  Specifically, the court found that her request for leave was not a reasonable accommodation because the plaintiff failed to provide the employer with any time frame for her return and then failed to respond to the employer’s subsequent attempts to contact her regarding her request for leave; thereby depriving the employer of the opportunity to engage in the interactive process with the employee.

Take Home For Employers

This case is significant because it confirms that extending an indefinite leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  However, this holding should be taken with a large grain of salt.

Even though this case was ultimately favorable to employers, it does not mean that employers are not required to extend a leave of absence following the expiration of FMLA as a reasonable accommodation.  Instead, it reminds employers of their obligation to engage in the interactive process with an employee who is seeking an extension of FMLA leave to determine whether extending the leave is a reasonable accommodation.  It further confirms that employers have the right to request that an employee provide reasonable documentation relating to their request for accommodation and they have a duty to explore various accommodations with the employee – one of which may be an extension of a leave of absence.

Finally, here the Court found that the employer’s attempts to engage in the interactive process with the employee (by sending two letters) were enough to make a good faith attempt to communicate with the employee.  However, did the employer really go far enough?  This Court thought yes, but other Courts in other jurisdictions have found that merely sending a letter to an employee is an insufficient attempt and employers should attempt to exhaust other lines of communication as well – like calling the employee on the phone.

If faced with a similar situation (an uncommunicative employee), we recommend that employers try multiple ways (phone, email, text message, letter) to contact the employee before reaching the conclusion that the employee is refusing to cooperate.