Thursday, July 28, 2016

Can a Request for FMLA Serve as a Request for an ADA Accommodation?

Employers already know that FMLA, ADA, Worker’s Compensation and a handful of other laws can collide in a dangerous intersection of employment rights, requiring employers to carefully examine employee eligibility under each.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals is about to decide whether this analysis gets trickier.

In Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, the plaintiff suffered from a degenerative hip joint disease which led him to apply for intermittent FMLA leave when the condition would “flare-up”. The employer granted the leave. In February 2014, the plaintiff called in sick, utilizing FMLA time for one of these flare-ups. Later, the employer received information anonymously that the plaintiff was actually under arrest during that same time period for DUI. As a result, the company discharged plaintiff for  FMLA abuse.

The plaintiff sued not only for violation of his rights under the FMLA, but also the ADA on the theory that if he was  not eligible for FMLA leave on those or any other days, then he was entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA (presumably a leave of absence). The district court ruled against the plaintiff on the basis that he never made a request for reasonable accommodation for his disability. An employer is liable for failing to make reasonable accommodations if: 1) the employer knew about the employee's disability; 2) the employee requested accommodations or assistance for his or her disability; 3) the employer did not make a good faith effort to assist the employee in seeking accommodations; and 4) the employee could have been reasonably accommodated but for the employer's lack of good faith.

The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that the employer was effectively put on notice of his disability by virtue of his FMLA request and the information provided in support of that. The court found that the plaintiff’s FMLA request was grounded on the fact that flare-ups of his condition would render him unable to work at all, which is contradictory to his argument that a reasonable accommodation might exist for his disability since he claimed that he was unable to report to work.

In light of the new focus on the fact that a reasonable accommodation might include a leave of absence, it will be interesting to see how the court of appeals rules on the issue of whether the FMLA request and certification also serves as notice of a request for reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In the meantime, employers should consider giving an expansive view towards employee provided medical information. Just because an employee doesn’t say the magic words “I need an accommodation” might not necessarily mean that the employer isn’t on notice. Being proactive in certain situations by reminding an employee that they can request a reasonable accommodation might reduce the risk of costly future litigation.