A federal judge in New York recently ruled that a FedEx driver’s claims for failure to accommodate under the Americans With Disabilities Act can proceed to trial. The court’s opinion provides helpful guidance for employers seeking to navigate the difficult issues that can arise when an employee is unable to immediately return to work after a medical leave of absence.

In Cayetano v. Federal Express Corp., a FedEx driver took leave under the Family Medical Leave Act for shoulder surgery. Near the end of his twelve weeks of FMLA leave, the driver’s doctor informed FedEx that the driver could return to work with a 20-lb. lifting restriction. His position required the ability to lift 75 lbs., however.

After receiving the driver’s lifting restrictions, FedEx informed him there were no light duty positions available that met his lifting restrictions. The company engaged in no other discussions with the driver regarding other potential accommodations, including additional job-protected leave. When the driver was released to work with no restrictions approximately three months later, FedEx informed him that no positions were available. The driver later sued FedEx alleging, among other claims, that the company had failed to reasonably accommodate him under the ADA.

FedEx argued to the court that the driver had never specifically requested additional job-protected leave beyond his initial 12-weeks of FMLA entitlement, but the court rejected this argument. While generally employees are required to request an accommodation, here FedEx was on notice of the driver’s need for additional leave once it received the physician’s note describing his job restrictions. The court explained that a jury could find that an additional three months of job-protected leave would have constituted a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The court also found merit in the driver’s arguments that FedEx had failed to engage in a good-faith interactive process to determine whether any reasonable accommodations existed. The court noted that FedEx had provided no evidence that it had asked “the [driver] what he wanted, considered his suggestions, offered alternatives, or even asked him to fill out its standard reasonable accommodations form.”  Thus, the court reasoned that a jury might conclude that FedEx’s failure to engage in such an interactive process would support a claim of discrimination.

This case provides important reminders for employers seeking to navigate the complexities of the interplay between the FMLA and ADA, particularly with leaves of absence. First, when an employee is unable to return to work at the conclusion of an FMLA leave, employers should always consider whether an accommodation of some type will be necessary under the ADA. Frequently, this may include the employer’s providing additional, job-protected leave. Employers should consider accommodations in these circumstances even when the employee has not requested a specific accommodation. Second, the court’s decision makes clear an employer’s obligation to engage in a good faith interactive process. Simply rejecting one type of accommodation as unreasonable is typically not enough. Employers should engage directly with the employee, consider the employee’s suggestions and, when possible, offer alternative accommodations. Finally, employers should always document the interactive process.

If you have any questions regarding this decision or workplace accommodation issues, please contact Mike Chesney or any of Frantz Ward’s other labor and employment attorneys.