Extended Medical Leave Can Be Reasonable Accommodation Under New York Law

New York’s Appellate Division recently recognized that a disabled employee working in New York may be entitled to take extended medical leave under the New York State and New York City Human Rights Law.

The case involved Deborah Phillips, a civil service employee for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS). After Ms. Phillips had worked for DHS for 18 years, she took a 3 month medical leave for a serious medical condition, stage III breast cancer. Ms. Phillips asked her employer to extend her medical leave for a full year. DHS denied her request because she had exceeded her entitlement to 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and was ineligible for additional unpaid medical leave under the Department’s policy. DHS told her that if she did not return to work by October 30, 2006, the date on which she originally agreed to return to work, she would be subject to disciplinary action, or fired.

Ms. Phillips then asked DHS if she could take any additional medical leave. The City denied her request, again telling her that if she did not to return to work by October 30, she would be fired and would lose her medical benefits. Ms. Phillips did not return to work, and DHS eventually fired her.

Ms. Phillips sued, claiming New York City denied her reasonable accommodations for her disability and fired her because of her disability, in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law. She sought to be reinstated to her job with DHS, damages for her lost salary and benefits, and punitive damages.

The trial court dismissed Ms. Phillips’ case, ruling that her cancer was not a “disability” under either the New York State or New York City Human Rights Law, but even if she was disabled she could not prove her claim because she admitted she could not perform the essential functions of her job, even with a reasonable accommodation. In particular, the court found Ms. Phillips had asked DHS to hold her job open “indefinitely,” which was not a reasonable accommodation under either the New York State or the NYC Human Rights Law.

But New York’s Appellate Division disagreed. On July 28, 2009, it reversed the trial court’s decision dismissing Ms. Phillips’ case, finding she had set forth valid claims of disability discrimination and failure to accommodate disability under New York State’s and New York City’s anti-discrimination laws.

Under the New York State Human Rights Law, a reasonable accommodation is an action that allows an employee to perform the essential functions of her job. Reasonable accommodations can include providing an accessible work site, acquiring or modifying equipment, providing support services for a person with impaired hearing or vision, restructuring a job, or providing a modified work schedule, as long as doing so would not impose an undue hardship on the business.

The appellate court found it was improper for DHS to deny Ms. Phillips’ request for an extended medical leave based on its policy, without engaging in an individualized “interactive process.” Specifically, DHS should have talked to Ms. Phillips to clarify her needs, and to consider its own business needs, in an effort to find an appropriate reasonable accommodation.

The Appellate Division ruled that, under both the State and City Human Rights Law, a company’s failure to engage in the interactive process, by itself, is a violation of law. This is different from the federal anti-disability discrimination law, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and many state laws, including the New York Human Rights Act (NYHRL) and possibly the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (LAD). Under the ADA and the LAD, in order to prove a claim based on their employer failing to engage in the interactive process, employees must identify a reasonable accommodation that would have permitted her to perform the essential functions of her job.

New York’s Appellate Division also disagreed with the lower court’s conclusion that Ms. Phillips had requested an “open-ended” medical leave, since she later asked for any additional medical leave. But it ruled that if Ms. Phillips had needed a one-year extension to her leave, DHS might have been required to grant her that much time off to recover from surgery for her breast cancer. It noted that, in many circumstances, a request for a one-year medical leave would not be reasonable. However, it refused to conclude that a request for one year off for a disability can never be a reasonable accommodation. Rather, the determination whether an accommodation is “reasonable” must be made on an individual case-by-case basis to decide whether the accommodation will be effective, and whether it would cause an undue hardship to the employer.

The Court interpreted the right to accommodations for disabilities under the New York City law even more broadly. It indicated that the New York City Human Rights Law requires employers to provide employees accommodations, rather than reasonable accommodations. As a result, the Court concluded that under New York City law employers must provide accommodations to disabled employees even if the accommodation will not allow the employee to perform the essential functions of their jobs. Rather, employers must provide any accommodation unless the employer can prove the accommodation would cause it an undue hardship.

Accordingly, the Appellate Division sent Ms. Phillips’ case back to the trial court to give her an opportunity to prove her disability discrimination and failure to accommodate claims.