Employer’s Duty To Accommodate Disabled Employee Extends Past FMLA Period

Person in Wheelchair

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, that provides job description to certain eligible employees, the employees is entitled to ninety (90) days of job protection. However, the MCAD (Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination), the state agency that adjudicates claims under the Massachusetts anti-discrimination statue (MGL c. 151B), a corporation cannot simply fire an employee once the employee has taken all of his or her FMLA leave.

Simply put, a company’s obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee with a serious medical condition, such as granting the employee a leave of absence, does not have an expiration date. For example, if an employee is treating for cancer, and after 90 days he is still seeking treatment, his rights may be exhausted under the FMLA. However, that does not mean the employees rights are exhausted under the state law, Chapter 151B. In fact, the MCAD’s recent decision makes clear that there is no magic time table that allows an employer to terminate an employee who is out on a medical leave.

The recent case is MCAD & LaPete v. Country Bank for Savings, LW 22-004-17. The employee was struggling with post-partum depression and anxiety after having her baby and she notified her employer, a bank. The bank’s attorney notified the employee of a deadline to return to work, with or without an accommodation to return to work, that she would be terminated. The employee hired a lawyer in an effort to jump start a dialogue to explore options, but the bank ignored this olive branch and followed through on its threat to fire the employee.

It appears that the bank believed that offering the employee 12 weeks of unpaid medical leave was sufficient and that their compliance with the FMLA alleviated any further obligations. The bank’s belief was rejected by the MCAD. Unless the bank was able to convince the MCAD that an extended leave of absence would create an undue burden on the bank, the bank violated its obligation to engage in the interactive process and provide a reasonable accommodation.

In this situation, the employee’s counselor was unable to project or predict a date of return. In many situations, the MCAD or a court will rule that an indefinite, open-ended medical leave is not a reasonable accommodation. However, this was not the focal point because the MCAD did not even have to get to the issue of the open-ended medical leave because the employer failed in the first step, which was to have a legitimate dialogue about how to hand the situation and to explore various options and opportunities.

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