Does a Request for Disability Benefits Qualify as a Request for an Accommodation of Leave Under the ADA?

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Last month, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals answered this question in the negative and found that an employee’s request for long-term disability benefits did not amount to a request for a reasonable accommodation in the form of leave.  As a result, the Sixth Circuit held that the employee’s failure-to-accommodate claim under the ADA failed where he could not point to any other evidence showing that he actually requested leave as a reasonable accommodation.

The employee in this case, Judge v. Landscape Forms, Inc., injured his arm while working at home.  The injury required surgery and the employee, Judge, was told by his doctor that the recovery time would be approximately four to six months.  In May 2011, Judge requested and was approved for FMLA leave until early August 2011.   During his leave, he also applied and was approved for long-term disability benefits beginning in July 2011.

Shortly before he was due to return to work, Judge informed Landscape Forms that he could not yet use his arm and that he would need six weeks of therapy.  He provided Landscape Forms a set of work restrictions, but he did not follow up or return to work after Landscape Forms asked for more clarification regarding the restrictions.  In late September 2011, Landscape Forms contacted Judge seeking information on his work restrictions.  Judge responded by faxing a note from his doctor with new work restrictions, but the note did not include any information as to Judge’s estimated date of recovery.  After receiving the doctor’s note, Landscape Forms terminated Judge on the grounds that it needed to maintain staffing levels and could not leave his position open indefinitely.   Judge was subsequently cleared to return to work without restrictions in November 2011.

Judge claimed that Landscape Forms discriminated against him and failed to accommodate his disability by not granting him leave until mid-November 2011.  The key issue for the Sixth Circuit was whether Judge actually requested leave as an accommodation and, if he did, whether the request was reasonable.  The court acknowledged that there is no “bright-line” test to determine when an employee’s request is sufficiently clear to qualify as a request for an accommodation.  However, on the facts of this case, the court found there was no evidence that Judge had ever made any statement that could be construed as a request for leave until mid-November 2011.  Although Judge argued that his request for long-term disability benefits constituted a request for an accommodation of leave, the Sixth Circuit disagreed.  Because Judge’s disability claim was processed through a third-party, which did not provide any information to Landscape Forms about the claim other than its approval, the Sixth Circuit found the request was insufficient to put Landscape Forms on notice that he was requesting leave as a reasonable accommodation or that he was seeking leave until mid-November 2011.

Given its finding that Judge never actually asked for additional leave as an accommodation, the Sixth Circuit did not reach the issue of whether the request would have been reasonable if properly made.  Had it reached this issue, the court might have had an opportunity, like the Tenth Circuit’s recent decision in Hwang v. Kansas State University, to provide additional commentary on when a request for additional leave is reasonable under the ADA, and when it is not.  Obviously, this additional commentary will have to wait for another occasion.