Employment-New York Appellate Court Holds That A Disabled Employee’s Request For Leave Must Be Treated As A Request For Reasonable Accommodation, So That The Employer Must Engage In Interactive Discussion With The Employee Before Denying The Leave

In Phillips v. City of New York, 2009 N.Y. Slip Op. 05990 (S. Ct. First Department), the Court examined the “reasonable accommodation” provisions of the New York State and City Human Rights Laws (HRLs). In this case, the plaintiff, Deborah Phillips, was hired by the defendant, the Department of Homeless Services (“DHS”), in a noncompetitive civil service job in 1988. After 18 years of satisfactory employment, she was granted an unpaid medical leave of absence, under the Family and Medical Leave Act, extending from about July 26 to October 30, 2006, due to a serious medical condition — breast cancer. The plaintiff requested, but was denied, additional unpaid medical leave, since DHS policy did not provide such additional medical leave to those employed in a noncompetitive civil service position. Further, DHS told the plaintiff that she and her medical benefits would be terminated if she failed to return to work by October 30, 2006. The plaintiff failed to return to work by that date and was terminated. She subsequently brought suit against DHS on the grounds that, among other things: (1) she is a disabled person within the meaning of the State and City HRLs, (2) her request for an extension of medical leave sought a reasonable accommodation under those statutes, and (3) defendants violated the statutes by denying her request and terminating her employment. The lower court had dismissed the plaintiff’s claims.

In evaluating the plaintiff’s claims, the Court determined that the plaintiff’s request for unpaid medical leave beyond October 30 must be treated as a request for reasonable accommodation. As such, the denial of the request for this medical leave, without engaging in an individualized interactive process with the plaintiff to determine if the leave or some other action would constitute a reasonable accommodation, is a violation of the State HRL (specifically, Executive Law Section 296(3)(a)) and the City HRL (specifically, New York City Administrative Code § 8-107(15)(a)). Since DHS had failed to engage in such interactive process with the plaintiff, the Court held that a violation of the State and City HRL had occurred. In so holding, the Court acknowledged that the reasonable accommodation requirements of the State HRL are broader than under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), and that such requirements of the City HRL are broader than under the State HRL.

The Court also determined that the plaintiff had stated a cause of action for disability discrimination under both State and City HRLs. The Court overturned the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims, and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with its holdings.