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Court Upholds University’s Inflexible Six-Month Leave Policy as Nondiscriminatory

By Kelly S. Riggs  6/26/2014
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The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a university’s inflexible six-month leave policy, finding that the university was not required to provide an employee undergoing cancer treatment with more than six months’ medical leave as a reasonable disability accommodation.

The plaintiff, Grace Hwang, alleged that Kansas State University’s inflexible leave policy allowing employees no more than six months’ sick leave violated the Rehabilitation Act. The Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a), prohibits federal agencies and programs receiving federal funding from discriminating on the basis of disability and applies the same legal standards for disability discrimination as the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Hwang was an assistant professor at Kansas State University who signed a one-year contract to teach classes over the fall, spring and summer academic terms. Before the fall term started, Hwang was diagnosed with cancer, and the university granted her request for a six-month paid leave of absence. Hwang then requested additional leave continuing through the end of the spring term, but the university denied her request based upon its inflexible leave policy capping sick leave at six months. Instead, the university arranged for Hwang to receive long-term disability benefits, which Hwang claimed effectively terminated her employment.

Hwang filed a lawsuit in the district court, alleging that the university’s denial of her request based upon its inflexible six-month leave policy constituted disability discrimination and arguing that additional leave should have been granted as a reasonable accommodation. The district court dismissed Hwang’s claim, failing to see how the Rehabilitation Act required the university to provide more than six months’ leave.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit upheld the dismissal of Hwang’s disability discrimination claim. The appellate court found that Hwang could not prove that she was qualified to perform her job with a reasonable accommodation because, while there was no doubt that she was a good teacher, an employee who is incapable of working in any capacity for more than six months is not capable of performing the essential functions of her job. 

The 10th Circuit also held that requiring the university to provide more than six months’ sick leave would not be a reasonable accommodation, because “reasonable accommodations … are all about enabling employees to work, not to not work.” The Rehabilitation Act was not designed “to turn employers into safety-net providers for those who cannot work.” The appellate court acknowledged that in some cases, such as when an employer’s inflexible leave policy is too short or when the policy is inconsistently applied, providing additional leave may be a reasonable accommodation. However, it reasoned that “six months is beyond a reasonable amount of time.” Accordingly, the 10th Circuit declared that the university’s six-month inflexible leave policy was “more than sufficient to comply with the Act in nearly any case.” 

Thus, in absence of evidence that the university’s policy was inconsistently applied to other similarly situated employees, the 10th Circuit upheld the university’s inflexible six-month leave policy and concluded that the university was not required to provide Hwang more than six months’ leave. 

The court also upheld dismissal of Hwang’s related disability retaliation claims for lack of evidence suggesting unlawful animus.  

Hwang v. Kansas State University, 10th Cir., No. 13-3070 (May 29, 2014).

Professional Pointer: This decision stands in contrast to prior court and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determinations that “inflexible leave” policies are unlawful because they do not take into account the possibility of providing additional leave as a reasonable disability accommodation, instead looking to whether the amount of leave provided by the policy was reasonable.  

Kelly S. Riggs is an attorney in the Portland, Ore., office of Ogletree Deakins, an international labor and employment law firm representing management. 

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