The Tenth Circuit recently upheld a district court’s award of summary judgment for an employer who terminated an employee following the expiration of her FMLA leave. The employee was terminated once the employer did not believe she could return to perform her job duties in the near future and the employee could not provide a timeline for her return.
In Robert v. Board of County Com’rs. of Brown Cnty., Kansas, 691 F.3d 1211 (10th Cir. 2012), the employee, Catherine Robert, worked as a supervisor of released adult offenders for ten years. Her job entailed performing drug screenings, coordinating with service providers, testifying in court, and visiting offenders in their homes.
In January 2004, she experienced severe back and hip pain which was remedied by surgery in the spring of that year. Ms. Roberts returned to work and performed all of her work activities until November 2005 when she fell down a flight of stairs in the Brown County Courthouse. Her previous symptoms returned which required another surgery in April 2006. In the five-month span between the fall and the second surgery, Ms. Robert was accommodated by her employer, Brown County, who allowed Ms. Robert to work from home and had Ms. Robert’s co-workers cover the on-site requirements of her job.
Ms. Robert had a second surgery and subsequently used all available FMLA leave, which expired July 5, 2006. On July 17, Ms. Robert attended a follow-up appointment and was told by her doctor that she would need several weeks to begin walking with a cane, and several more before she might be able to walk unassisted. Ultimately, it was unclear when – or if – Mr. Robert would be able to return and perform all of her previous duties. On July 31, the Brown County Board of Commissioners elected to terminate Ms. Robert’s employment because she was unable to return to work at full capacity after her leave ended.
Ms. Robert sued under the ADA, alleging discrimination because of her disability. Ms. Robert claimed that the in-home visits were not essential to her job, or alternatively, that it would be a reasonable accommodation to permit Ms. Roberts to take a temporary leave of absence until she could continue those duties.
To state a prima facie case for discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must establish (1) she is disabled; (2) she was qualified, with or without reasonable accommodation, to perform the essential function of her job; and (3) her employer discriminated against her because of her disability. Taylor v. Pepsi-Cola, 196 F.3d 1106, 1109 (10th Cir. 1999). Here, the district court resolved this case on summary judgment in favor of the County. The Court, relying on the second prong, stated that because Ms. Robert was not able to supervise offenders in person or perform in-home (or in-office) visits with the offenders, she was no longer “qualified” for the position. The Court noted that in determining whether Ms. Robert was qualified, it would look at two criteria – (1) did the impairment prevent her from performing the essential functions of her job, and (2) if so, could she have been able to perform those functions if the County provided a reasonable accommodation? Davidson v. Am. Online, Inc., 337 F.3d 1179, 1190 (10th Cir. 2003). The Court, relying on the employer’s testimony, found that the in-home visits were an essential function of Ms. Robert’s employment, and that the temporary accommodation provided by the employer which allowed Ms. Robert to work from home and avoid such visits did not render them “non-essential.” Moreover, the Court held that permitting Ms. Robert to take a leave of absence was not a “reasonable accommodation.”
This decision is important for two reasons. First, although a leave of absence for medical treatment or recovery can be a reasonable accommodation, the Court found that it is subject to two limits. First, the employee must provide the employer with an estimated date when she can resume her essential duties. Without such a date, an employer is unable to determine whether the temporary exemption is a reasonable one. The second limitation is durational. The Court noted that “[a] leave request must assure an employer that an employee can perform the essential functions of her position in the ‘“near future.”’ Robert, 691 F.3d at 1218. Here, Ms. Robert was unable to provide a timeline for her return to work. An employer is not required to “wait and see” when an employee returns.
Second, the employer’s tolerance of Ms. Robert’s inability to perform in-home visits and to supervise offenders for a period of five months did not render those duties “non-essential,” nor did such tolerance render those accommodations “reasonable” if applied on a permanent basis. The Court correctly reasoned that employers should not be punished for temporarily accommodating employees. It would be counterproductive to punish employers who help employees by creating temporary accommodations if those actions could later be the lynchpin in forming the employee’s ADA discrimination claim.
The Robert case is a beacon for employers confronted with employee disability concerns, and can act as a guidepost to help employers address whether certain accommodations requested by an employee are in fact “reasonable.”