Interplay of FMLA and ADA Precludes Employers from Automatically Terminating Employees at End of FMLA Leave

Q: Can my company fire an employee once the person has exhausted his or her FMLA leave entitlement?

A: Many employers are surprised to learn that they may not necessarily terminate an employee if he or she does not return to work at the end of FMLA leave.  Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an employee is eligible for up to 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave.  Upon returning from FMLA leave, except in a few limited situations, an employee is guaranteed the right to return to the same position or to an equivalent position with equivalent benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment that the employee held before the leave commenced.  Under FMLA regulations, however, an employee does not have a right to return to work if he or she is unable to perform the essential duties of the position.

But what if the employee asks for more time off after the FMLA leave period has expired?

Once an employee has exhausted his or her FMLA leave, the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requires employers to consider whether an extension of leave is warranted as a reasonable accommodation of a disability. An extended leave may be a reasonable accommodation if it is for a finite period of time to receive treatment or to recover from a disability.  Employers must consider each situation on a case-by-case basis, engaging in the interactive process with the employee to determine whether the employee has a disability within the meaning of the ADA, and whether an extended leave would be a reasonable accommodation to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job once he or she returns to work.  Employers also must determine whether there are any applicable state laws or worker’s compensation laws that are implicated.

In addition to considering the application of the ADA to each employee’s situation, employers should ensure that their employee handbooks do not contain return to work policies that violate the law. Language that calls for automatic termination after the employee has been absent for a certain period of time may give rise to liability for failure to consider the impact of the ADA.

Renee C. Manson