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ADA claim denied where employee failed to extend medical leave prior to doctor’s release


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Hanson

By Doug Hanson

Extended medical leave

A manufacturing employee began working for a plastic products manufacturer full time in January 2007.  He worked in various jobs for the manufacturer, including as an assembly line worker, a machine operator and a mold setter.  In early 2009, the employee worked as a mold setter as part of a three-person team.  The molds weighed from 500 pounds to 32,000 pounds.  Placing the molds required the use of heavy equipment and frequent standing, lifting, stooping, crawling and climbing.

After complaining of back pain to his doctor, the mold setter was scheduled for back surgery and advised he may miss up to one year of work recovering from the surgery.  The manufacturer granted the mold setter a medical leave of absence for a period of six months.  A third-party administrator managed the short term disability leave.

The manufacturer’s “Maximum Medical Leave of Absence Termination Policy” provided an employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her position, with or without reasonable accommodations, for a period of six months within any 12-month period would be automatically terminated, unless such termination was prohibited by law.

The mold setter received a copy of the leave policy at the beginning of his leave, and was informed the manufacturer no longer provided a one-year medical leave of absence, but would be eligible for long-term disability benefits if the six-month period was exhausted.  Although the mold setter was instructed to communicate with the third-party administrator regarding questions about his short-term disability benefits, he did not ask how to obtain an extension of the six month leave period.  

The mold setter was granted leave until September 17, 2009.  On August 17, 2009, the mold setter attended an appointment with his doctor, who ordered an additional four weeks of physical therapy and a follow up appointment for September 14.  However, the mold setter asked the doctor to release him to work during the August 17 appointment, because the mold setter thought he could perform his job and return to work as of that date.

The third-party administrator reviewed the doctor’s notes and placed a return to work date of September 18.  The mold setter asked for guidance in August 2009 as to how he could apply for long-term disability benefits.  The manufacturer then assumed the mold setter would not be returning to work on or before September 18 and he would be receiving long-term benefits at the end of his six-month leave.  The mold setter filed for long-term disability benefits on September 15.

The mold setter was unable to attend his scheduled September 14 doctor’s appointment and rescheduled for September 21, but did not recall asking the manufacturer to his extend his medical leave of absence or otherwise advising of his rescheduled appointment.  He also did not ask to return to work in a different position because he knew his doctor had not released him to work.  

On September 21, the doctor strongly advised the mold setter to remain off work, but the mold setter pressured the doctor for a release because he heard the manufacturer was laying off workers at the plant.  The doctor agreed to release the employee, but imposed six months of physical restrictions, including no lifting more than ten pounds, no repetitive bending or stooping, and sitting or standing as needed.  The doctor noted these restrictions were “not in keeping” with the job of a mold setter.

When the mold setter informed the manufacturer of the doctor’s release, the manufacturer advised he was terminated three days earlier on September 18 when his six month medical leave expired.  The mold setter was not offered a different position or part-time work.  At the time of and prior to the mold setter’s termination, the manufacturer also conducted plant-wide layoffs based on seniority and job classification, including layoffs of employees with more seniority than the mold setter. As a result of the layoffs, there also was not a full-time position in a lower job classification open at the time of the mold setter’s termination.

Sitting on your rights
After the mold setter’s application for long-term benefits was denied, he filed a charge of disability discrimination with the EEOC, and later filed suit alleging a violation of the ADA.  The mold setter claimed the manufacturer discriminated against him by denying him the chance to work with or without reasonable accommodations and by terminating his employment under an “inflexible blanket policy.”

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit began by analyzing whether employee established a claim for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation.  The Sixth Circuit noted that the employee must show:  (1)  that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA; and (2)  that he is otherwise qualified for the position he holds or desires despite his disability.

The Sixth Circuit first found the mold setter failed to establish the manufacturer did not reasonably accommodate him, because there was no proof he asked the manufacturer to grant him a reasonable accommodation to return to his job as a mold setter or to transfer him to a less strenuous job commensurate with his physical restrictions.  Instead, the mold setter offered his doctor’s release when he returned to work and simply left the building when the manufacturer informed him his employment was terminated.  He did not propose a reasonable accommodation allowing him to return to his job, nor did he request a transfer to a less-demanding job.  The mold setter also did not apply for reemployment even though the medical leave policy allowed him to reapply and he was eligible to be rehired.

The Sixth Circuit also found the mold setter’s claim for discriminatory discharge failed.  The mold setter knew his medical leave was set to expire on September 18, but his rescheduled appointment was not until September 21.  However, he did not ask for additional time on medical leave and did not provide medical documentation demonstrating he would be able to return to work within a reasonable time after termination would take effect.  He simply filed an application for long-term disability benefits and permitted his medical leave to expire on September 18.  Accordingly, the mold setter’s claims were dismissed.


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