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Can Worker Take More than 12 Weeks of Medical Leave? Court Says Yes

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Need FMLA for Longer than 12 Weeks? 

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. In some cases, longer leave can be taken using the ADA.

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 restriction.

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.

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