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Court says employer is not required to provide indefinite disability leave

The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California issued a decision on February 2 that provides instruction for California employers on a unique situation: Whether an employer must continue to renew multiple requests for ongoing medical leave for total disability when there is no indication of when the employee will be able to return to work.

In Ruiz v. ParadigmWorks Group, Inc., Ruiz worked as an admissions counselor in San Diego for ParadigmWorks (PGI). Ruiz broke her ankle, which caused temporary total disability from work. Pursuant to a note from her doctor, PGI gave her unpaid leave for a few days. Thereafter, the physician wrote another note extending the period of disability approximately three more months, during which time Ruiz had surgery. Finally, a third note requested leave for disability for another six weeks or so. Instead of further extending her leave, PGI terminated her employment at this point.

Ruiz sued PGI for disability discrimination (and four other related claims) under the federal Americans with Disability Act or ADA and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act or FEHA. The judge wrote that disability discrimination claims under these two laws are similar, "[limiting] their protective scope to those employees with a disability who can perform the essential duties of the employment position with reasonable accommodation."

The court granted PGI's motion for summary judgment, holding that Ruiz could not perform the essential function of her job with any accommodation and that, therefore, PGI was not required to grant her an indefinite medical leave because she was not an individual qualified for ADA protection. To get protection, she would have to be able to perform the "essential functions" of the job either without or with reasonable accommodation.

The court explained that finite medical leave can be a reasonable accommodation if it is not an "undue hardship" for the employer and if it is likely the person could do the job at the end of the leave. The court reasoned that Ruiz had not shown a third extended leave was a reasonable accommodation, especially in light of her prior two leaves of absence, or that she was "qualified to perform the essential functions of the job" because she could not work at all.

California employers are cautioned from relying on this decision in declining to offer further leaves of absence to an employee who cannot perform the essential functions of his or her position because each and every case of accommodation must be analyzed and considered on its own facts and circumstances. This case is illustrative of how far one court was willing to go in determining when an employer was relieved of a responsibility of offering further leave, but a different court could hold differently on similar but different facts. Finally, it should be noted that this is a lower-level federal court applying California law, and is therefore not binding upon the California state courts, or the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal.

The lawyers at Duggan Law Corporation in Sacramento advise Northern California employers about how to comply with California and federal laws against disability discrimination and requiring reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. We regularly assist employers in navigating the interactive process and give guidance concerning the bounds of reasonableness and undue hardship in considering leaves of absence as an accommodation, and other requested accommodations.

(Westlaw indicates that Ruiz has appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.)

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