Southern District Court of California Rules California Employers Do Not Have to Extend Multi-Month, Indefinite Medical Leaves of Absences to Employees

Author: Yousaf Jafri

Guest Editor: Jessica Heppenstall

June 8, 2018 10:23am

Overseeing employee medical leave of absence can be a headache for employers. Employers are not only required to comply with mandated leave requirements under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) or California Family Rights Act (“CFRA”), they must also consider medical leave process in the context of disability discrimination and their obligation to provide disabled employees with reasonable accommodation.

Recent Case Law

However, thanks to a recent decision out of the Southern District Court of California, employers can feel a bit more at ease in the face of open-ended extensions of medical leave. The Court held in Ruiz v. ParadigmWorks Group, Inc., that an employer is not required to provide a “multi-month” medical leave of absence where an employee is totally disabled and cannot provide a definite end date to her leave. This comes on the heels of a recent Ninth Circuit ruling in Markowitz v. United Parcel Services, Inc., which provided “[e]mployers are not required to provide indefinite leaves of absence,” in light of plaintiff’s failure to request other forms of accommodation beyond leave. The Markowtiz Court continued, an employer may discharge an employee if “the employee is unable to perform [his or her] essential duties even with reasonable accommodations.”

In Ruiz, plaintiff worked as an admissions counselor for a government contractor (“Company”) that provided college admissions guidance to underprivileged high school students. Plaintiff reported to her supervisor that she had sustained an ankle injury at home, and requested several days off to recuperate. Once those several days expired, plaintiff notified the Company that she required several weeks off in order to undergo surgery on her ankle and fully heal. At the end of plaintiff’s 12-week leave of absence, she requested an additional month of medical leave. When the Company asked what her anticipated return to work date would be, plaintiff could not provide one. The Company then terminated plaintiff’s employment but not without inviting plaintiff to reapply for a suitable position as soon as she fully recovered and was able to come back to work.

Plaintiff sued the Company, alleging disability discrimination and 12 related causes of action under the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”) and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Plaintiff argued she was denied reasonable accommodation when the Company denied her request for a fourth medical leave of absence.

The Court summarily rejected plaintiff’s argument. In doing so, the Court held employers are not required to provide multi-month medical leaves of absence where the employee is unable to provide a definite end date to their medical leave. As a threshold matter, the Court observed plaintiff was not at all protected under the ADAAA or the FEHA as a qualified individual because her alleged injury precluded her from performing the essential functions of her job. The Court emphasized there was “no dispute” plaintiff was totally disabled and “no accommodation would have allowed her to perform her job.” As such, the Company was not required to extend plaintiff’s leave indefinitely.

The Takeaway

Importantly, the Ruiz court’s ruling applied in federal and state contexts, respectively under both the Americans with the Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”) and the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).  This decision gives employers something to lean on when faced with an employee seeking indefinite leave. The court’s opinion lays the groundwork for employers to justifiably terminate an individual’s employment, where the individual can no longer perform his or her essential job functions even with reasonable accommodation. For more information on how to handle medical leave, and the issues presented in such instances, contact our employment practice group.

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