Medical leaves of absence continue to confound employers. Under the ADA, an employer must consider an unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation. An unpaid leave of some limited duration, however, will be reasonable in most cases.

When is an employer free to deny an employee’s request for a leave as an ADA accommodation? Let’s examine Williams v. AT&T Mobility Services (6th Cir. 1/27/17) for an answer.

Kirsten Williams worked as a Customer Service Representative for AT&T Mobility Services. She also suffered from depression and anxiety attacks. Those issues caused frequent absences from work for the duration of her employment, from 2007 through 2014. Those absences resulted in disciplinary warnings each year.

Beginning in February 2014, Williams started to seek FMLA leave for her issues. AT&T denied that request, however, because she had not worked the required 1,250 hours the prior year. Instead, AT&T granted her short-term disability for two weeks, and conditioned any further leave on its receipt of medical documentation. When Williams failed to meet three different deadlines (after three different return-to-work extensions), in July 2014 AT&T finally terminated her employment for excessive absences.
The Williams decision is an interesting read on attendance as an essential job function and the types of jobs for which flexible work arrangements are not reasonable, but I want to focus on the aspect of the decision discussing AT&T’s denial of any additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.

An employer is not required to keep an employee’s job open indefinitely. … 

In the present case, AT&T provided Williams with retroactively approved STD leave and allowed her to retain her position for many months before terminating her in July 2014. Williams submitted an evaluation from Thompson that provided a return date of August 15, 2014, but Thompson stated that this date was only an estimate. Given that Williams had a history of taking leaves, that her condition failed to improve during those leaves, and that she repeatedly failed to return to work by dates on which her treatment providers had previously estimated that she would be able to return, requiring AT&T to grant further leave as an accommodation would be unreasonable.

Employers, the ADA does not mandate all accommodations; it only calls for reasonable accommodations. How you handle an employee’s medical issues will determine the scope of your required reasonableness. Did you try to work with the employee? Did you have an open dialogue with the employee about essential job functions, the limitations of the condition, and potential solutions? Did you already grant (an) accommodation(s) that failed? 

Once you deny an accommodation request, you should prepare to defend that decision before a judge and/or jury. Will that judge or jury view your actions as “reasonable” or “unreasonable”? If the answer is the latter, then you might want to reconsider your decision, until your actions tip the scale the other way. The Williams case presents a good example of an employer that tried to work with an employee, and was rewarded for it in her inevitable lawsuit.

This post originally appeared on the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, and was written by Jon Hyman, Partner, Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis. Jon can be reached at via email at, via telephone at 216-831-0042, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter.


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