First Circuit Sides with Employer in Reasonable Accommodation Case

The Americans with Disabilities Act and its Massachusetts counterpart both require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. Those laws also require employers to engage in an interactive process with disabled employees in order to identify potential reasonable accommodations. The First Circuit, in the case of Miceli v. JetBlue Airways Corp. et al. recently provided helpful guidance to employers and employees when it comes to one of the most difficult areas of employment law: leaves of absence resulting from mental health related conditions.

Lauren Miceli began working for JetBlue in 2006 as a crew member. In the spring of 2015, Ms. Miceli was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, at that time, sought protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). According to JetBlue policy, any absence taken before FMLA leave is granted is characterized as “unavailable for assignment” (UNA). According to that same policy, employees who accumulate 12 dependability points in a 12 month period are subject to an employee review, which may result in termination.

Starting in the fall of 2014, Ms. Miceli began to accrue UNA absences, which she claimed related to her health conditions. Ms. Miceli eventually reached 8 points and received progressive guidance / discipline for reaching that number. During that meeting, Ms. Miceli claimed that some of the absences that led to the points should have been covered under the FMLA leave, even though they exceeded her approved FMLA allotment.

In June of 2015, Ms. Miceli submitted documentation in hopes of extending her allotted FMLA time from one day per occurrence to five days per occurrence. That request was granted. A month later, she received a final progressive guidance (final warning) based on her accrual of 10 dependability points. Ms. Miceli urged unsuccessfully that these absences should be recorded as FMLA occurrences, despite her providing documentation that several of the absences were related to her PTSD and/or depression.

Ms. Miceli was hospitalized several times in the summer of 2015 due to her mental health issues. Ms. Miceli provided documentation of her hospitalization on August 6 and her leave was approved from that day forward. She had, however, an absence two days prior to that date that was coded as UNA despite the fact that she appears to have been hospitalized on that date. This brought her dependability points to 12.

Ms. Miceli filed a complaint with the MCAD on November 2, 2015. JetBlue suspended her on November 17 (two days after returning from leave) and terminated her on December 15 due to excessive absenteeism. On March 28, 2018, Judge Stearns granted JetBlue’s motion for summary judgment, finding that it terminated Ms. Miceli for a legitimate non-discriminatory reason, namely her attendance issues. Ms. Miceli appealed to the First Circuit.

On January 28, 2019, the First Circuit upheld the dismissal of Ms. Miceli’s complaint. In doing so, the First Circuit determined that Ms. Miceli would only be able to succeed on her claim if she could establish that she had asked JetBlue to deviate from its attendance policy as a reasonable accommodation to her PTSD. The First Circuit ultimately determined that Ms. Miceli had not asked for such an accommodation, noting that she had not availed herself of the specific avenues provided by JetBlue to its employees concerning requests for accommodation, including a dedicated email address and an online application directed to its human resources department.

The First Circuit also rejected Ms. Miceli’s argument that her expressing hope in an email “for those of us with disabilities to be met with compassion and reasonable accommodations if difficulties are faced” amounted to a request for a reasonable accommodation because her request was not reasonably specific, and did not link the disability to a specific accommodation.

Takeaways for Employers: (1) Establish clear protocols for requesting accommodations. Make them easy to find and easy to follow. (2) Avoid using ‘maximum leave’ policies as they are inconsistent with the flexibility required by the reasonable accommodation concept. (3) Document the hardship that a leave creates and analyze whether that hardship is truly a burdensome one. (4) Document all conversations with employees about leave so that the specifics of those conversations can be easily recalled.

Takeaways for Employees: When you think you may need an accommodation: SPEAK UP! The law does require employers to provide reasonable accommodations and it requires them to interact with employees to determine if a requested accommodation is or is not reasonable. It even requires them to interact with employees to find a reasonable accommodation if it confronts one it deems unreasonable. But it doesn’t, to any degree, require employers to do any of that if the employee doesn’t do his or her part by asking for a specific and reasonable accommodation.

If you have questions regarding requesting accommodations contact us today.