The Connecticut Appellate Court recently held that an employee’s request for leave was not a reasonable accommodation where the employee requested an indefinite leave and did not respond to the employer’s request to contact her regarding her leave.  The case, Thompson v. Department of Social Services, provides helpful guidance to employers in managing medical leaves of absences.

Basic Facts

The plaintiff was employed by the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) from 1987 to 2013. She suffered from a chronic condition that required her to take medical leaves throughout her employment, including intermittent leaves and leaves on a reduced work schedule.

On February 6, 2013, after having exhausted her available FMLA leave, the plaintiff left a note under an HR representative’s door stating that she would be taking a medical leave beginning the next day and lasting “over thirty days depending on my lung condition as I need to get well and my lungs better.”  The plaintiff provided her cell phone number and her home address, advising the HR representative to contact her if she had any questions. The plaintiff also left paperwork making claims under two short-term disability policies. On one policy, the plaintiff claimed that she would be unable to work until reevaluated, and her physician indicated that she would be unable to work from February 7, 2013 to “ongoing”, and that he expected “significant improvement in the [plaintiff’s] medical condition” in one to two months. On the other policy, the physician claimed that the plaintiff’s need for leave would be “ongoing” and she would be able to return to work “when reevaluated”, although no date was provided for the reevaluation.

An HR representative mailed a certified letter to the plaintiff’s home address notifying her that she was ineligible for leave, that she had not provided sufficient documentation to support her current leave of absence, that she was ineligible to use leave time donated by a coworker, and that her current leave was not authorized. The plaintiff was instructed to contact her supervisor on a daily basis, and that if she did not provide a medical certificate to support her leave by February 21, 2013, she would be considered to have resigned not in good standing. The plaintiff did not respond and, therefore, a second letter was mailed confirming her separation of employment. The plaintiff stated that she did not receive either letter because she had been staying at her daughter’s home for approximately two weeks, and she was not retrieving her mail. The plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming that she was discriminated against based on her disability and that DSS failed to provide her a reasonable accommodation in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act (CFEPA).

Court’s Ruling

The trial court rendered summary judgment in favor of the employer and the Appellate Court affirmed on the grounds that a reasonable accommodation does not require an employer to provide an indefinite leave of absence. The Court highlighted the plaintiff’s statement at her deposition that she did not know how long she would be out and the statements on her short-term disability paperwork did not indicate “when—or even whether—the plaintiff would be returning to work.” The Court further noted that the plaintiff did not respond to DSS’s attempt to obtain further information thereby denying DSS the “opportunity to engage in the required interactive process with the plaintiff regarding a reasonable accommodation for her disability.”

Lesson for Employers

This case underscores several important points for employers. First, an employer’s obligation to consider medical leaves as a form of accommodation does not necessarily end when FMLA expires. The Appellate Court recognized that a medical leave of absence can be a form of reasonable accommodation under the CFEPA. Second, a request for an indefinite leave of absence is not reasonable.  Third, employers have a right to request reasonable documentation and information related to an employee’s need for an accommodation, and employees cannot ignore such requests. Fourth, employers and employees have a duty to engage in an interactive process to explore various accommodations. And, finally, the party responsible for the breakdown in the interactive process usually will come out on the short end.