The interplay between the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) is an area of confusion for most employers. This confusion is understandable as both statutes serve distinct purposes but require a covered employer to grant medical leave to employees in certain circumstances. Employees may require a leave of absence for a myriad of reasons and in many scenarios the employer’s obligations differ greatly in each situation. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently decided a case that makes navigating the FMLA/ADA waters a bit trickier. In Capps v. Mondelez Global, LLC, No. 15-3839, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 1593 (Jan. 30, 2017), the Court held that under certain circumstances a request for FMLA may also qualify as a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Frederick Capps, a former employee of Mondelez suffered with Avascular Necrosis (“AVN”), a condition which causes a loss of blood flow and limited oxygen and nutrient delivery to the bone and tissues. As a result of this condition, Capps experienced severe pain, which lasted for days or weeks at a time. During his employment with Mondelez, Capps requested and was given intermittent FMLA leave when he experienced an AVN flare-up.
After Capps returned from an FMLA leave, Mondelez learned that Capps had been arrested for a DUI on the evening of a day that he had taken off for FMLA approved reasons. Mondelez also learned that Capps had used FMLA time for the day after his arrest when he was incarcerated, as well as for days when he appeared in court related to his arrest. Mondelez subsequently terminated Capps’ employment believing that Capps had violated the Company’s Dishonest Acts Policy (“DAP”). Capps brought suit alleging, inter alia, interference and retaliation in violation of the FMLA and ADA. The trial court dismissed Capps’ claims on a motion for summary judgment.
Silver Lining For Employers
On appeal, Capps’ argued that his employer was mistaken and he had not misused his FMLA leave. Mondelez maintained that Capps’ employment was terminated because the company believed that he had violated the DAP by misusing his FMLA leave in connection with his DUI. The Court held that an employer’s honest belief, even if mistaken, that an employee misused FMLA leave is a legitimate nondiscriminatory reason for an employee’s termination.
Increased Burden When Assessing Medical Leave Requests
As part of his appeal, Capps argued that his employer’s actions violated the ADA because his request for intermittent FMLA leave may be protected by the ADA. Stated plainly, Capps’ position was this: my employer should have understood that when I requested intermittent FMLA leave I was also requesting a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. While the facts did not support a failure to accommodate claim as Capps was granted the requested leave, the Court expressly confirmed that a request for FMLA leave may qualify, under certain circumstances, as a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
In the wake of Capps and the EEOC’s 2017-2021 Strategic Enforcement Plan, which highlights the EEOC’s intention to narrow its focus on ADA claims involving inflexible leave policies that discriminate against individuals with disabilities, employers should:
- Avoid knee-jerk reactions to FMLA requests (or what may appear to be FMLA requests);
- Consider both the FMLA and the ADA when presented with any requests for medical leave;
- Remember that certain serious health conditions may also rise to the level of disability; and
- Review company leave policies to ensure compliance with both the FMLA and ADABecause every situation is different, employers faced with employee requests a leave of absence related to a medical issue should seek the advice of an experienced employment attorney.
Because every situation is different, employers faced with employee requests for a leave of absence related to a medical issue should seek the advice of an experienced employment attorney.
Charlene Barker is an attorney in the Labor Relations and Employment Law Department at Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP. Charlene focuses her practice on advising employers on compliance with federal and state anti-discrimination laws, and defends employers in litigation. She can be reached at 215.665.2926 or Charlene.Barker@obermayer.com.