A federal court in West Virginia recently held that an employer is not required to grant an indefinite leave of absence as an accommodation under a state disability discrimination law. Davis v. Universal Cable Holdings, Inc., Civil Action No. 2:16-cv-06526, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 183881 (S.D. W. Va. Nov. 6, 2017). The case involved Ronald Davis, who worked as a Broad Band Technician for Universal Cable Holdings, Inc. (“Universal Holdings). His job duties required quite a bit of physical activity, including carrying up to 75 pounds, climbing high ladders, and climbing poles using gaffs, hooks, and a climbing belt. Crawling, bending, reaching, and twisting through confined spaces was also a requirement.
In July 2012, Mr. Davis underwent the first of many medical procedures that would require leaves of absence from employment. Mr. Davis exhausted his FMLA leave entitlement in March 2013, but he remained on leave through July 22, 2013, when his doctor recommended temporary light duty. Universal Cable agreed to provide Mr. Davis a light duty assignment. Based on information provided by various medical professionals, Universal Cable agreed to extend the light duty assignment into January 2014.
In mid-January 2014, Mr. Davis was again placed on leave. He was placed on leave from January 22, 2014 until April 30, 2014. During this time, Mr. Davis had arthroscopic surgeries on both of his knees. On April 25, 2014, Dr. Majestro, the knee surgeon, informed Universal Cable that Mr. Davis would “remain continuously disabled” pending a follow up appointment on May 6, 2014. At the May 6th appointment, Dr. Majestro cleared Mr. Davis to return to work on May 12, 2014, provided Mr. Davis did no climbing until his next medical evaluation on June 3, 2014. Dr. Majestro later clarified that he expected Mr. Davis to return to work full-time after June 3rd. Following the June 3rd appointment and a subsequent June 18th appointment, Dr. Majestro said Mr. Davis was “continuously disabled” pending re-evaluation. No return to work date was provided. Finally, on July 9, 2014, Dr. Majestro again found Mr. Davis “continuously disabled” and requested extending the leave period pending his next evaluation of Mr. Davis on August 12, 2014.
Universal Cable did not grant additional leave; it sent Mr. Davis a letter terminating his employment. Universal Cable wrote, in part, “Your doctor has given no indication as to whether or when you may be able to return to work in any capacity, which means we cannot consider you for reassignment to an open position. If you are able to return to work at a later date, we invite you to apply for any open position for which you are qualified. Currently, we have an open dispatch position, and our website is continually updated available job openings [sic] … .” Dr. Majestro released Mr. Davis to return to work without restrictions on August 15, 2014. Mr. Davis did not apply for the open dispatch position or any other position at Universal Cable.
Mr. Davis sued for discriminatory discharge. This was a case brought under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, but the legal standards and requirements for accommodating employees with disabilities are similar under federal and other state laws. It is generally accepted that upon exhaustion of any FMLA leave, additional time off may be a reasonable accommodation if it will remedy an employee’s temporary inability to perform his or her job. This creates a quagmire that employers must navigated very carefully. Courts differ over how much additional leave is enough, but generally agree that an indefinite leave of absence either is unreasonable and causes an undue hardship or renders the employee not a qualified individual with a disability.
In Universal Cable’s case, the Court concluded that there was nothing in Dr. Majestro’s notes that could lead a reasonable jury to conclude that Mr. Davis was likely to return to work after his doctor’s appointment on August 12, 2014. The employer kept getting the same information for months, which was that Mr. Davis was “continuously disabled” pending re-evaluation. Mr. Davis had been out of work for an extended time, and there was no evidence suggesting to Universal Cable that the last request for leave would turn out any different from the others. The Court concluded that Universal Cable was well within its rights to discharge Mr. Davis.