Can an Indefinite Leave of Absence be a Reasonable Accommodation for a Disability?

Earlier this month, New York’s highest court ruled that although an employee is not entitled to take an indefinite leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation under the New York Human Rights Law (NYHRL), they might be entitled to do so under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL).

In the case, Giuseppe Romanello worked for Intesa Sanpaola S.p.A. (Intesa) for approximately 25 years. He experienced major depression and other medical conditions that prevented him from working. Accordingly, he took a leave of absence under the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). After a five-month paid leave of absence, the company’s lawyer sent a letter to Mr. Romanello’s lawyer indicating that his FMLA leave time was about to run out, and asking if he intended to return to work or abandon his job. Mr. Romanello’s lawyer responded that although he had no intention of abandoning his job, Mr. Romanello still was medically unable to work for the company, and needed an “indeterminate” leave of absence. The company fired Mr. Romanello in response.

NYHRL Leave of Absence and Reasonable Accommodation.jpgMr. Romanello then filed a lawsuit claiming his employer discriminated against him because of his disability in violation of the NYHRL and the NYCHRL. Both of those laws prohibit employers from firing an employee because of a disability if the employee can perform his or her job with a reasonable accommodation. Depending on the circumstances, time off can be a reasonable accommodation for a disability.

The trial court dismissed Mr. Romanello’s failure to accommodate claims under both the NYHRL and the NYCHRL. Mr. Romanello appealed, and his case eventually made its way to the New York Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals ruled that under New York State law an indefinite leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation for a disability. This is consistent with how New Jersey has interpreted the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD).

In contrast, the Court of Appeals explained that under the New York City Human Rights Law there is no type of accommodation that is “categorically excluded from the universe of reasonable accommodation.” As a result, depending on the circumstances, an indefinite leave of absence could be a reasonable accommodation under the NYCHRL.

The Court concluded that Mr. Romanello had requested an indefinite leave of absence because his lawyer did not indicate when he expected to return to work, but instead indicated he needed an “indeterminate” leave of absence. As a result, it agreed that his claim under the NYHRL was properly dismissed. However, it reinstated his claim under the NYCHRL since he could be entitled to an indefinite leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation since the NYCHRL consistently has been interpreted to be broader than the NYHRL and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a result, Mr. Romanello will be able to try to prove his claim under New York City law.