In MCAD & Amanda LaPete v. Country Bank for Savings, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”) awarded Complainant (Amanda LaPete), a woman who was terminated while on approved leave for post-partum depression, back pay plus $50,000.00 for emotional distress stemming from her employer’s disability discrimination. Docket No. 10-SEM-02769 (Kaplan, J., February 5, 2017).
While employed by Respondent (Country Bank for Savings), Complainant was granted 17 weeks of leave to give birth, which comprised of accrued sick and vacation time, eight weeks of maternity leave (as permitted by M.G.L. c. 149, § 105D), and an additional four weeks pursuant to the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).
Complainant suffered post-partum depression while on leave and notified Respondent of her disability. She consistently provided Respondent with updates during her leave, including a timeframe for her return to work. Notably, Complainant fully intended to return to work with Respondent, yet her health care provider suggested she take further time off due to persistent depression and anxiety. Complainant requested an additional four weeks of leave, however, Respondent ignored her request and terminated her employment.
The Massachusetts anti-discrimination statute, M.G.L. c.151B, prohibits discrimination by an employer based on disability. To prove a case of disability discrimination for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation, complainant must show: (1) that she is “handicapped”; (2) that she is a “qualified handicapped person” capable of performing the essential functions of her job; (3) that she needed a reasonable accommodation to perform her job; (4) that Respondent was aware of her handicap and the need for a reasonable accommodation; (5) that Respondent was aware, or could have been aware, of a means to accommodate her handicap; and (6) that Respondent failed to provide Complainant the reasonable accommodation. Hall v. Laidlaw Transit, Inc., 25 MDLR 207, 213-214 (2004).
In Country Bank for Savings, the MCAD Hearing Officer ruled that Complainant established sufficient evidence to prove a prima facie case of disability discrimination for failure to provide a reasonable accommodation by demonstrating that she: 1. was handicapped for purposes of the statute; 2. was qualified to perform the essential functions of her job; 3. required a reasonable accommodation; and 4. adequately kept Respondent informed of her need for an accommodation while out on leave. The MCAD also found that Complainant’s finite request for extended leave was a reasonable accommodation so that she could cope with her post-partum depression.
The MCAD found that Respondent’s termination of Complainant without engaging in an interactive dialogue about the request for extended leave was a violation of the employer’s duty under the statute. Importantly, the Hearing Officer stressed in her decision that an employer is not shielded from liability simply by allowing an employee leave under the FMLA. Rather, the employer has an affirmative responsibility to engage in the interactive process when the employee is preparing to return from leave.
Notably, there was no persuasive evidence that Complainant’s request for extended leave would cause the Respondent an undue burden on its operations or finances.
This decision highlights the requirement that employers understand the timing of when their obligation to engage in the interactive process is triggered. Though a company’s obligation is clear when an employee explicitly requests an accommodation, employers must also engage in the interactive process when they have reason to believe an employee needs a reasonable accommodation absent a specific request citing to the statute.