Can Worker Take More than 12 Weeks of Medical Leave? Court Says Yes
Woman’s temporary disability made her eligible for ADA coverage
While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows qualified employees
to take up to 12 weeks of leave to deal with medical issues—either
their own or a loved one’s—three months may not be long enough
for some people.
So what happens then? Do companies have any obligation to hold employees’
jobs for them? Or do staffers have to effectively forfeit their positions?
A recent court case considered this question in regard to a woman’s
temporary disability. The decision shed some light on what can happen
when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) intersects with the FMLA.
Six Months of Recovery
As a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), Norma Walker frequently had to
lift and move patients. Over time, her job took a toll on her body.
Walker’s doctor told her that she needed to have shoulder surgery.
She was told that she’d require six months of recovery time but
after that she would be able to resume her regular activities without
Walker brought the doctor’s note to the human resources office at
Chipola Retirement Center where she worked. Even though the doctor’s
note specified a recovery period of just slightly over six months, she
claims that her employer told her she could only take 12 weeks of leave
under the FMLA.
The company alleges that Walker only requested 12 weeks off.
“Quit or Be Fired”
Walked had the surgery. She was unable to return to her job after her 12
weeks of FMLA leave were exhausted.
She was told that she could either quit or be fired. She quit.
After her recovery was complete—on the exact date the doctor had
predicted—Walker began job hunting. She was hired as a CNA with
a different company. However, the pay was lower, and she claims that the
position was less desirable for other reasons as well.
Walked decided to speak to an attorney. She sued the company for violating
her rights under the ADA.
The company argued that Walker was only entitled to 12 weeks of leave under the FMLA.
However, Walker’s attorneys countered that Walker’s surgery
left her temporarily disabled, so she was entitled to accommodation under
the ADA. They pointed out that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
has stated that extended leave can be considered a reasonable accommodation
as long as it doesn’t pose a business hardship.
The company lost. In its opinion, the court pointed out that the company
had to have been “extremely dense” not to understand that
Walker was seeking an ADA accommodation.
It added that allowing Walker to return to work would not have been a hardship
and, in fact, would probably have been in the company’s best interest.
Walker was on unpaid leave and was not receiving benefits at the time
she was terminated. Turnover among the many CNAs that Chipola employed
was high. Allowing Walker to resume her duties would have allowed the
company to fill an open position with an experienced, valued employee
who required no training.
Walker was awarded back pay. She did not seek reinstatement because she
had found another, higher-paying position by the time of the trial.
(The case discussed here is Walker v. NF Chipola, LLC, d/b/a, Nursing Pavilion at Chipola Retirement Center.)
What It Means to You
The ADA does not have a set list of conditions that are or are not considered
disabilities. Rather, coverage is determined on a case-by-case basis.
However, the Act was expanded several years ago to cover a wider range
of conditions, including, in some instances, temporary disabilities. The
expansion also means that employers must be more flexible regarding medical
leave in certain cases.
Because ADA issues are so dependent on individual circumstances, it’s
a good idea to seek legal advice if you believe that your rights under
the ADA have been violated.