Are Extended Leaves a Reasonable Accommodation?

While federal law protects people with disabilities, New York City law is even more protective. This is particularly true for the doctrine of “reasonable accommodations” – when an employer must work to accommodate an employee’s illness.

To see the difference, it is useful to compare two cases. In Hwang v. Kansas State University, Grace Hwang was hired by the defendant college as an assistant professor with a one-year contract to teach at the school for fall, spring, and summer terms. Before she began her employment, Ms. Hwang was diagnosed with cancer requiring immediate treatment. Kansas State agreed to grant Ms. Hwang a six-month paid leave of absence, but as that leave approached its end, Ms. Hwang was informed by her doctors that she required additional time off, so she requested additional time as a “reasonable accommodation” for her illness. The university refused to grant the leave and terminated her employment.

Ms. Hwang sued Kansas State in federal court, arguing that by refusing to extend her leave, Kansas State discriminated against her by denying her a reasonable accommodation.

The Tenth Circuit, which is the appeals court tasked with reviewing District of Kansas cases, dismissed her claim rather curtly. In essence the court held that any leave beyond a “brief absence from work for medical care” would not qualify as a reasonable accommodation and since Ms. Hwang had already taken six months off, she was out of luck.

By contrast, New York courts applying the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws tend to view extended leaves as a reasonable accommodation. In Phillips v. City of New York, Ms. Phillips had been employed by the city Department of Homeless Services (DHS) for 18 years. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, Ms. Phillips was granted a strict three-month medical leave by DHS. Very early in her leave, Ms. Phillips requested a one year extension of leave time. She was denied the extension and ultimately fired.

The Appellate Division, First Department held that one year of leave could constitute a reasonable accommodation and DHS’ decision to fire her violated the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws.

The difference between how these two courts determined whether extended leaves were reasonable accommodations could not be more stark. According to the Tenth Circuit, only very short leaves are a reasonable accommodation. To the Appellate Division, First Department, even leaves of over one year can be a reasonable accommodation.

New Yorkers are lucky to be covered by the New York State and New York City Human Rights Laws.

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