Can You Be Forced to Take Leave for a Disability?

Black walker as an orthopedic device after a single operation.

Disabilities come in all severities, forms, and durations. But can a one-size-fits-all disability policy interfere with your ability to work or keep your job? Can a car accident or chronic health situation put your job at risk? Can you be forced to take leave for a disability?

In this article I will discuss a settlement by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in response to a complaint that an employee was forced to take leave for a disability rather than be granted reasonable accommodations. I will review what the Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to do when faced with an employee disability. I will also explain what employees’ options are if they have been forced to take leave for a disability.

What is a Disability?

Your doctor tells you to take it easy and not lift too much for a while so your back can heal. Maybe you were in an accident and need to wear a cast or boot for a few weeks. You may have a vitamin deficiency that makes you tire easily or a repetitive movement injury that could be aggravated by your work.

Disabilities can take many forms. Not every illness or impairment is a disability, legally speaking. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act applies any time a person:

  • Has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity like walking, standing, sitting, talking, hearing, seeing, or learning
  • Has a history of disability (like a disease in remission)
  • Is believed to have a permanent physical or mental impairment (even if it is not true)

Seeking Reasonable Accommodations for Your Disability

Having this kind of disability doesn’t automatically make you unable to work. Many people with disabilities maintain full- or part-time employment. In fact, that is one primary purpose behind the Americans with Disabilities Act. It requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for people with mental and physical disabilities.

This can include any change to the way things are normally done at work (or within the work environment) to help you meet your employers’ expectations or enjoy the benefits and privileges of your work. Some examples of common accommodations include:

  • Stools for those who would otherwise work standing
  • Wheelchair accessibility to work spaces, conference areas, break rooms, and bathrooms
  • Large-font manuals and reports for those with vision problems
  • Text-to-speech programs for the deaf and hearing impaired
  • Flexible work schedules for those who need breaks or have frequent doctors’ appointments

The ADA says your employer must provide these reasonable accommodations to you as an employee or job seeker unless doing so would cause significant expense or difficulty.

Can You Be Forced to Take Leave for a Disability?

But what happens if you inform your employer about your disability and they simply tell you to pack up your things and go? Can you be forced to take leave or be fired because you have a disability?

This was the basis behind the lawsuit EEOC v Wilmington Trust Corporation, Civil Action No. 17-cv-05077, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Starting as early as 2002, Hudson City Savings Bank (HCSB) had a “no-restrictions” disability policy. Anyone who came to work with an impairment or disability was placed on involuntary leave until they received clearance from their doctor to return to work with no restrictions. HCSB became part of Wilmington Trust Corporation in 2015, but the policy apparently continued.

Then a bank teller came to work in the Harrison, New York branch wearing a cam walker boot to treat Achilles tendonitis and bone spurs. The boot had no effect on her ability to do her job. Still, under the bank policy she was placed on involuntary leave and eventually fired.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) took up her case. In a statement, Kevin Berry, the EEOC’s New York District Director said:

“[T]he ADA requires employers to engage in an interactive process and does not allow for such ‘no restriction’ policies.”

By continuing HCSB’s policy, the EEOC said Wilmington Trust discriminated against people with disabilities, and failed to even allow them to request reasonable workplace accommodations. On December 19, 2018, the judge in the case entered a consent decree awarding the teller $700,000 in lost wages and other damages, and creating a two-year injunction where Wilmington agreed to:

  • Stop the no-restrictions policy
  • Notify HCSB legacy employees of their right to request disability accommodations
  • Conduct trainings on the company’s disability discrimination policy

Corporate Structures and Successors’ Obligations Under the ADA

The no-restrictions policy in this case pre-dated Wilmington Trust’s involvement in the company. But that didn’t excuse the successor company from correcting its predecessor’s illegal disability discrimination under the ADA. Berry said:

“The consent decree also demonstrates how a successor entity can take action to make sure a predecessor’s discriminatory practices do not infect its workplace.”

These kinds of legacy practices and inflexible leave policies promise to be a focus of the EEOC going forward. They have been identified as priorities in the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan.

When outdated policies follow employees through corporate restructuring, it can cause disabled workers to feel like there is no way to work around their restrictions. But the ADA and the experienced employment discrimination attorneys at Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, say otherwise. From our main office in New York City, we can help employees across the country negotiate for accommodations to address their medical needs, and represent disabled employees at the EEOC and in federal court. If you have been forced to take leave for a disability, contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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