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Employers are only obligated to allow Family and Medical Leave Act leaves that are of limited and definite duration to meet the requirement of providing a reasonable accommodation, said an appellate court in upholding dismissal of a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by a terminated worker.
According to Wednesday's decision by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver in Catherine Robert v. Board of County Commissioners of Brown County, Kansas, Ms. Robert had worked as supervisor of released adult offenders for 10 years when she developed sacroiliac joint dysfunction, which caused her severe pain in her back and hips, in January 2004.
Her job description involved “considerable fieldwork” and “visits in less-than-desirable environments,” according to the ruling. She had surgery, and other workers performed her tasks until she returned, which “created tension and ultimately contributed to one employee's resignation,” according to the ruling.
In November 2005, Ms. Robert fell down the stairs and was scheduled for another surgery in April 2006. Her co-workers again filled in for her. Ms. Robert's FMLA leave expired on July 5, 2006, and she was terminated by the Hiawatha, Kan.-based Brown County Board of Commissioners on July 31, 2006.
Ms. Robert filed suit on charges including discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, unlawful retaliation for her use of FMLA leave, breach of contract and violation of her procedural due process rights under the Fourth Amendment. A U.S. district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants on all claims.
“Robert concedes that she could not work outside her home when Brown County terminated her,” said the three-judge appellate panel's ruling. “But supervising offenders in-person was clearly an essential function of her position. So too was conducting visits to their homes and workplaces,” said the appellate ruling. The “only potential accommodation would be a temporary reprieve from this essential function.”
However, “there are two limits on the bounds of reasonableness for a leave of absence,” said the ruling. “The employee must provide the employer an estimated date when she can resume her essential duties” and “a leave request must assure an employer that an employee can perform the essential functions of her position in the 'near future.'”
The record “shows that, at the time of her termination, the county did not have a reasonable estimate of when she would be able to resume all essential functions of her employment. As such, the only potential accommodation that would allow Robert to perform the essential functions of her position was an indefinite reprieve from those functions — an accommodation that is unreasonable as a matter of law,” said the ruling. “For that reason, she was not a qualified individual under the ADA, and her claim of discrimination fails,” said the ruling, which also upheld dismissal of Ms. Robert's other claims.