Sixth Circuit Opinion Provides Important Reminders for Employers about Pregnancy and Disability, ADA Protected Leave, and The Perils of Mismanaged Processes

Sixth Circuit Opinion Provides Important Reminders for Employers about Pregnancy and Disability, ADA Protected Leave, and The Perils of Mismanaged Processes
March 23, 2022 admin

On March 8, 2022, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an unpublished decision in Blanchett v. Charter Communications, LLC brimming with issues and reminders applicable to employers of all sizes.

The plaintiff, Kelly Blanchet, was a high performing employee at Charter who became pregnant several years into her employment. After the delivery, Ms. Blanchet developed postpartum depression and requested a protected leave of absence for treatment and recovery. Since she had exhausted her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, the request was evaluated as a request for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (ADA).

Like many employers, Charter relied on a third-party administrator to handle the FMLA and ADA leave request processes. Ms. Blanchet followed the process outlined by Charter and the administrator – submitting documentation from her healthcare provider. The specific timeline for her return to work “was unknown at the time” but that Charter could “expect April,” which was approximately 60 days away. Despite receiving informal assurances by the administrator that the request was approved, several weeks later, Ms. Blanchet unexpectedly received a termination letter from the employer.

On appeal, the Court determined that the case should be heard by a jury because there were issues of fact to consider, including whether Ms. Blanchet’s request for leave was a reasonable accommodation.

This case offers several important takeaways for employers to consider:

  1. Supervisors and decisionmakers must know that many pregnancy-related complications and conditions, such as postpartum depression, are regarded as disabilities under the ADA.
  2. Employees with disabilities may request an unpaid leave as an accommodation. These requests are typically made after an employee has exhausted FMLA, and must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
  3. If the request is denied, the employer should be prepared to articulate why it would create an undue hardship or why the employee is not an “otherwise qualified” individual.
  4. Employers who rely on third-party administrators for FMLA and ADA processes must establish procedural checks to foster clear communication in order to avoid contradictory messaging or inconsistent decisions.

Grand River Solutions offers disability-focused training and consulting services to help our clients develop processes and procedures to effectively support employees with disabilities and navigate ADA compliance. For ADA questions please contact us to learn more.

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