Navigating Leave of Absences, Doctor’s Notes, and Return to Work Deadlines

Sep 26, 2023 | Disability Discrimination, Reasonable Accommodation

Leave of Absences:

Under the FEHA, reasonable accommodation may include granting a leave of absence to allow an employee to address their disability-related needs, such as medical treatment or recovery. 

However, a leave of absence does not insulate an employee from being fired for normal business reasons, such as planned layoffs or job eliminations. While the FEHA protects employees with disabilities from discrimination and ensures that reasonable accommodations are provided, it does not shield employees from job-related decisions that are made for legitimate business purposes unrelated to their disability.

The California Pregnancy Disability Leave (PDL) law specifically addresses the rights of pregnant employees. Under PDL, if you experience a pregnancy-related condition or disability, you have the right to take a leave of absence to address those conditions. PDL provides for a maximum of four months of leave during the period of pregnancy-related disability. 

Furthermore, there is no maximum amount of leave under California law for employees who are eligible for reasonable accommodations under FEHA. The duration of your leave will depend on your specific circumstances and the medical necessity related to your disability. Employers are obligated to engage in a good-faith interactive process with you to determine the appropriate duration and terms of your leave.

Doctor’s Notes:

A doctor’s note is a written document provided by a medical professional, such as a physician, explaining a patient’s medical condition, treatment, and physical limitation related to disability.

A doctor’s note is typically required for a disabled employee to request reasonable accommodation for several important reasons:

  • Verification of Disability: It serves as formal verification of the employee’s disability, ensuring that the employer is aware of the medical condition.
  • Medical Basis for Accommodation: The note outlines the medical basis for the requested accommodation, helping the employer understand the employee’s specific needs.
  • Interactive Process: It initiates the interactive process by providing the employer with information to evaluate the accommodation request and explore potential solutions.

When obtaining a doctor’s note for reasonable accommodation of a disability, the following aspects are crucial:

  • Clarity and Specificity: The note should clearly describe the nature and severity of the disability and how it impacts the employee’s ability to perform essential job functions.
  • Duration: The note MUST specify a definite return-to-work date if the accommodation involves a leave of absence. Indefinite leave is generally not considered reasonable accommodation and the failure to provide a definite return-to-work date may result in termination of employment.


Managing Return-to-Work Dates:

When a disabled employee is on a leave of absence and is in the process of seeking reasonable accommodation, managing return-to-work dates becomes a critical aspect of ensuring compliance with the FEHA and avoiding disability discrimination.  In some cases, the use of “serial doctor’s notes” can complicate this process, leading to misunderstandings between employers and employees.

Serial Doctor’s Notes and Potential Misinterpretations:

Serial doctor’s notes refer to a series of medical documentation provided by the employee’s healthcare provider, each containing a return-to-work date. These notes are commonly used when an employee’s medical condition requires ongoing evaluation and treatment. However, employers sometimes misinterpret serial doctor’s notes as an indication of “indefinite” leave. 

Each New Note Must Be Considered Anew:

It’s crucial to understand that each new doctor’s note resets the return-to-work date and must be considered independently by the employer. The mere accumulation of notes does not imply that the employee is on indefinite leave. Instead, it signifies ongoing medical evaluation and a commitment to returning to work as soon as medically feasible. The employer must evaluate each new note to determine if the provided return to work date is reasonable based on the current medical assessment.

The Accumulation of Notes Is Meaningless in Evaluating Reasonable Accommodation:

Employers must recognize that the accumulation of serial doctor’s notes should not be the focus when evaluating reasonable accommodation. Instead, the emphasis should be on assessing whether the provided return to work dates align with the employee’s medical condition and treatment progress. The responsibility of the employer to engage in the interactive process and consider accommodation options remains intact, even as the employee continues to provide updated notes extending their return-to-work date.

Prohibition Against Termination Based on Serial Notes:

Employers are prohibited from terminating an employee solely based on the seemingly never-ending series of doctor’s notes extending their leave of absence.

Staying in touch:

The disabled employee on leave of absence should communicate with their employer prior to and when approaching the return-to-work date.  15-30 days advance communication is appropriate.

A disabled employee has an obligation to maintain open communication with their employer as they approach a return-to-work date following a leave of absence. This communication is a vital component of the interactive process and is required not only to facilitate reasonable accommodation but also to protect the employee’s rights and maintain a positive working relationship with their employer.

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