Ninth Circuit Reaffirms No Duty to Provide Indefinite Leave of Absence
In Department of Fair Employment and Housing v. Lucent Technologies, Inc., the Ninth Circuit held this week that disability discrimination and failure to accommodate could not be proven against an employer who terminated an employee after a year of leave due to the employee's disability. The employee at issue, Steven Carauddo,was an installerwho became injured in the course of his job duties. The employee's injuries indisputably rendered him incapable of performing the essential duties of his position. As a result, Lucent placed him on a leave of absence. Lucent had a policy whereby employees who were unable to return to work after 12 months due to disability were terminated from employment. However, the employee could apply for an extended leave with a doctors' note indicating a prognosis for a full recovery within 6 months.
Lucent stayed in communication with Carauddo regularly throughout his leave of absence regarding his continued physical restrictions and inability to perform the essential functions of his job. One of the essential functions of his job was that he regularly lift up to 50 pounds. Carauddo remained unable to perform this function, according to his doctors, throughout the entire 12 month disability period. When Carauddo was unable to return to work after 12 months, Lucent terminated his employment pursuant to its policy. Over the next two months, Lucent continued to have communications with Carauddo's doctors regarding his lifting restriction, and Carauddo's doctor at that point cleared him to return to work with no restrictions. However, Lucent did not reinstate him.
The following year, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing sued Lucent on Carauddo's behalf for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and failure to engage in the interactive process. Lucent removed the case to federal court and the court granted Lucent summary judgment, throwing out the DFEH's claims. Notwithstanding its well-known pro-employee stance, the Ninth Circuit agreed with the lower court and affirmed the judgment in Lucent's favor. In so doing, the Ninth Circuit held that Lucent clearly and regularly engaged in the interactive process with Carauddo to determine whether he could perform the essential functions of his job or an alternative job. Lucent also reasonably accommodated him by giving him a 12-month leave of absence. Carauddo was still unable to perform the essential functions of his job (or any other available job) at the end of that 12 month period. As a result, the court held that Lucent lawfully terminated his employment because it was not required to provide an indefinite leave of absence or modify the duties of Carauddo's position in order to accommodate his disability.
The Ninth Circuit's decision is an unusually favorabledecision for employers tackling disability discrimination cases.