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$4.5M Awarded for Failure to Grant Additional Leave

Is additional time off after a protected leave of absence considered to be a reasonable accommodation? Federal courts have disagreed with each other on the issue under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but a California court recently awarded $4.5 million for an employer's failure to grant additional leave under state law.

In the shadow of the question of whether additional time off is required is a more critical—and often overlooked—issue: how does an employer approach an employee's request for additional leave? One California employer was sent a clear message by a jury after that company failed to address an employee's request for additional leave to deal with a post-injury recovery and depression and instead, determined without discussion that it was unreasonable. The jury's total award to the employee, including punitive damages, was more than $4.5 million.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

Della Hill worked as a counselor for a nonprofit drug abuse program in Los Angeles County. In 2014, Hill was honored by the county for her work in that program.

In 2015, Hill injured her arm and took time off to recover from the injury and from a diagnosis of severe depression. Hill was scheduled to return to work on March 23, 2015, but asked for an extension of her leave under state law until April 11, 2015—an additional 18 days.

The request was not addressed, and, instead, Hill was fired from her job on March 31, 2015, without discussion about any accommodation or possible re-employment. Hill filed suit under California law, which is analyzed similarly to federal anti-discrimination law.

After a trial, the jury found in favor of Hill and awarded nearly $550,000 in past and future wage loss, and an additional $1.35 million in compensatory (nonwage) damages. The jury also determined that the employer's failure to engage in any interactive discussion with Hill was evidence of "malice, oppression or fraud" and awarded more than $2.6 million in punitive damages.

Hill v. Asian American Drug Abuse Program Inc., Calif. Super. Ct., No. BC 582 516 (Judgment entered Jan. 16, 2018).

Professional Pointer: The jury's reaction, and its resulting message to the employer, was based on the employer's lack of interaction after Hill's leave request. Regardless of whether a requested accommodation is reasonable is a secondary concern to the method an employer uses to address the request. This case points out that the method must include some form of interactive discussion.

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