Employment-Tenth Circuit Holds That Sick Leave Exceeding Six Months Is Not A Reasonable Accommodation

In Hwang v. Kansas State University, No. 13-307 (10th Cir 2014), the Court faced the issue of whether an employer could face liability under the Rehabilitation Act (the Public School equivalent of the Americans With Disabilities Act (or, the “ADA”)) for denying an employee sick leave exceeding 6 months.

In this case, Grace Hwang, an assistant professor at Kansas State University, signed a written one-year contract to teach classes over three academic terms (fall, spring, and summer). But before the fall term began, Ms. Hwang received news that she had cancer and needed treatment. She sought and the University gave her a six-month (paid) leave of absence. As that period drew to a close and the spring term approached Ms. Hwang’s doctor advised her to seek more time off. She asked the University to extend her leave through the end of spring semester, promising to return in time for the summer term. But according to Ms. Hwang’s complaint, the University refused, explaining that it had an inflexible policy allowing no more than six months’ sick leave. The University did arrange for long-term disability benefits, but Ms. Hwang alleges it effectively terminated her employment. In response, she filed this lawsuit contending that by denying her more than six months’ sick leave the University violated the Rehabilitation Act. Failing to see how this much followed, the district court dismissed her complaint. Ms. Hwang appeals the dismissal.

In analyzing the case, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) noted that the Rehabilitation Act prohibits recipients of federal funding, like Kansas State, from discriminating on the basis of disability. One way a disabled plaintiff can establish a claim for discrimination in the workplace is by showing that she is qualified for her job; that she can perform the job’s essential functions with a reasonable accommodation for her disability; and that her employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation despite her request for one. Once a plaintiff can show all these things, an employer generally may avoid liability only if it can prove the accommodation in question imposes an undue hardship on its business. In this case, Ms. Hwang was not able to perform the essential functions of her job, even with a reasonable accommodation. By her own admission, she couldn’t work at any point or in any manner for a period spanning more than six months. The Court said that an employee who is not capable of working for so long is not an employee capable of performing a job’s essential functions — and that requiring an employer to keep a job open for so long does not qualify as a reasonable accommodation. A six month leave is too long to be considered a reasonable accommodation. Accordingly, the Court concluded that Ms. Hwang did not state a claim of discrimination, and it affirmed the district court’s decision.