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Intersection of FMLA and Disability Law

Published:  March 3, 2017

A recent decision (M.C.A.D. & Amanda LaPete v. Country Bank for Savings) made by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination serves as an illustration of the intersection of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and disability law, which is a reminder that once an employee exhausts FMLA leave, additional leave may be a reasonable accommodation under disability law.  

In this case, Amanda LaPete (“LaPete”), a bank employee, took FMLA leave after the birth of her child.  Prior to exhausting FMLA leave, LaPete told her employer that she would not be able to return to work after 12 weeks of leave as planned due to post-partum depression, which she sought treatment for.  LaPete gave her employer documentation from her counselor, which did not provide a definite return to work date and otherwise indicated that she could not predict when LaPete would be able to return to work.  Based on this seeming request for an indefinite leave of absence, the bank notified LaPete that if she did not return to work in approximately a week, her employment would be terminated.  Prior to this deadline, LaPete’s attorney requested that LaPete be allowed additional leave of approximately one month until she could be re-evaluated by her medical providers.  The bank did not consider this correspondence to be a request for accommodation or an attempt to engage in an interactive dialogue.  At this time, according to LaPete, she also verbally informed her employer that she anticipated returning to work in approximately one month.  After giving her a total of 17 weeks of leave, the bank, without engaging in an interactive dialogue about the feasibility of extending her leave, terminated LaPete’s employment. 

Exactly how much leave constitutes a reasonable accommodation under Massachusetts (and federal) disability law is not clearly defined.  Instead, what is a reasonable accommodation has to be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Failing to engage in an interactive dialogue to determine what is reasonable under the particular circumstances can result in costly litigation.  In this case, LaPete was awarded more than $12,000 in lost wages, and $50,000 in emotional distress damages.  The MCAD also ordered the bank to conduct training on unlawful discrimination for all managers and supervisors, including those hired over the next 5 years. 

This decision underscores the importance of considering disability law before terminating an employee who requests additional leave after exhausting FMLA leave.  In addition, it highlights the importance of engaging in an interactive dialogue with an employee, regardless of whether they have given what seems to be an indefinite return to work date or a general timeframe.       

If you have any questions about FMLA or disability law, please contact any of the attorneys at Royal, P.C.