The Family and Medical Leave Act and Americans with Disabilities Act intersect in many ways. That’s because employees who are injured or ill may need both time off, which is frequently covered by the FMLA, and may also need work accommodations, which are governed by the ADA. One issue that’s arisen, and that’s about to be ruled on for the first time by a federal appeals court, is whether a request for FMLA leave can also serve as a request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. This is an important question because, while many employees are now familiar with the concept of time off through the FMLA, not all know about the possibility of requesting a work accommodation as a corollary to FMLA time.
The case at issue is Capps v. Mondelez Global. Frederick Capps suffered from avascular necrosis, a degenerative bone disease. Because of that disease, Capps had both of his hips replaced. He was certified for FMLA leave following that procedure, and was continuously certified approximately every six months for intermittent FMLA leave for his condition until his termination in 2014. Mondelez fired him because it believed that he had improperly used a FMLA leave day after his arrest for drunk driving.
Capps brought suit after he was fired. One of his allegations was that Mondelez failed to accommodate his disability (avascular necrosis) by granting him time off work. But the trial court ruled that, because Capps never specifically sought an accommodation for his disability, he could not later sue for failure to provide such an accommodation. The court rejected Capps’s argument that his requests for FMLA leave also simultaneously served as requests for a reasonable disability accommodation and dismissed Capps’s ADA claim.
Capps then appealed. That appeal’s currently pending. It has attracted a lot of attention concerning the issue of whether an FMLA request also serves as an ADA accommodation request in the absence of a specific request for an accommodation. It doesn’t appear that any federal court has ever addressed this exact issue. There’s a plenty of law to the effect that medical leave can be a reasonable disability accommodation; what’s missing is any case that considered the question of whether an FMLA request is the same as a request for a disability accommodation.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission maintains that an FMLA request also counts as a request for a disability accommodation. That of course is contrary to the employer’s position and the district court decision in Capps. This is more than an issue of semantics for employees who don’t specifically request a disability accommodation. Not all employees and employers are covered by the FMLA. An employee’s who’s determined to be ineligible for FMLA for any reason, and who doesn’t also specifically ask for a disability accommodation, would have no ADA accommodation rights if the Capps decision stands. Further, the rights to reinstatement at the conclusion of leave are different under the FMLA compared to the ADA. The FMLA only guarantees reinstatement to a comparable position. Conversely, the ADA requires reinstatement to the employee’s exact previous position.