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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally prohibits covered employers from discriminating against employees or applicants on the basis of disability.  One form of such discrimination is failing to provide reasonable accommodation to a qualified individual with a disability.  The ADA refers to possible forms of accommodation, such as job restructuring, modified work schedules, and transfer to a vacant position.  Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that an unpaid leave of absence may also constitute a valid accommodation under the ADA, even if the employee prefers other types of accommodation.  See Hannah v. United Parcel Service, Inc. (4th Cir. 7/10/23).

Hannah is a truck driver for UPS.  Due to a hip and buttocks injury, he became unable to operate the truck that was normally assigned to be used on his route.  Hannah requested that UPS provide him with a smaller truck with softer suspension system which would not aggravate his injury.  In the alternative, he asked to be transferred to an “inside job.”  However, UPS rejected both of these requested accommodations, on the grounds that: 1) the smaller truck could not carry as much freight and would require multiple trips to complete the deliveries on Hannah’s route, which would result in increased costs, work hours, and inefficiency; and 2) there were no inside jobs available which Hannah was qualified to perform.  Consequently, UPS placed Hannah on an unpaid leave of absence until his injury healed and he could return to work and operate his regularly assigned truck.  Indeed, Hannah returned to work several months later.

Hannah filed suit against UPS.  He argued that by being forced onto a leave of absence, UPS failed to accommodate his disability in violation of the ADA, resulting in a discriminatory loss of wages which he otherwise would earned if he had been assigned either a smaller truck or inside work.  When the federal district court dismissed his case on summary judgment, Hannah appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

However, the Fourth Circuit rejected Hannah’s claims.  First, given the evidence that Hannah’s assigned route required the use of a larger truck in order to complete that route, the Court found that a smaller truck would not have allowed Hannah to perform the essential functions of his driver job.  In that regard, the Court recognized that it is the employer’s right to define essential job functions, and that Hannah could not “simply redefine the job” in order to justify his preferred form of accommodation.  Second, Hannah could not demonstrate that there was an available inside job to which he could have been transferred – and the ADA does not require an employer to create a job in order to accommodate a disabled employee.  Thus, as to the two forms of accommodation requested by Hannah, the Court found that they were not reasonable within the meaning of the ADA.

The Court then turned to Hannah’s leave of absence and whether that action satisfied UPS’ obligation to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  The Court first cited well settled law that the “ultimate discretion to choose among reasonable accommodations rests with the employer.”  The Court then cited with approval the holding of several other federal circuit courts, which found that “[w]hile a period of unpaid leave might not always be a reasonable accommodation, such leave may be reasonable where the disability that interferes with an employee’s capacity to complete assigned tasks is temporary and there is reason to believe that a leave of absence will provide a period during which the employee will be able to recover and return to work.”  Applying this precedent, the Court found that UPS’s placement of Hannah on an unpaid leave of absence (despite his objection) constituted a reasonable accommodation under the circumstances, because it gave Hannah an opportunity to receive medical treatment for his injury and ultimately return to work and perform the essential functions of his regular driver position.  Thus, the Court concluded that UPS’s employment action did not violate the ADA.

The Fourth Circuit’s decision is instructive to employers regarding their duty under the ADA to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified individuals with disabilities.  Of course, employers must engage in an “interactive process” with such individuals to explore possible accommodations.  However, the employer has specific rights in this process, which include the right not to create a job position for a disabled employee or to provide other accommodation which would result in an undue burden.  As the Court’s decision demonstrates, a leave of absence may constitute an appropriate form of accommodation to be considered, even if the employee does not prefer that form of accommodation.  Each potential accommodation should be assessed on the basis of the particular facts, and employers may exercise their business judgment in selecting the best form of reasonable accommodation under the circumstances.

    Robert’s practice focuses on the representation of management in multiple areas of labor and employment law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the National Labor Relations Act. He has defended corporate clients in cases pending before Federal and state courts, as well as the EEOC, Department of Labor, and other federal and state administrative agencies. He also regularly advises management on a wide range of employment issues, including EEO compliance, investigation of complaints, employee leaves of absence, employee handbooks, FLSA classification, wage payment, and employment contracts.

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