NELA Files Tenth Circuit Amicus Brief Targeting Untenable Standard For Leave Requests Under The ADA/ADAAA

By Matthew Koski posted 04-12-2016 10:59 AM


On April 5, 2016, NELA was joined by our colleagues from the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) in filing an amicus brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in support of the Plaintiff-Appellant Kristin Punt in Punt v. Kelly Services & GE Controls Solutions.

Kristin Punt was fired from her job almost immediately after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. As is true for most people during the first days or weeks after receiving a cancer diagnosis, the extent of her cancer and what her treatment would entail were uncertain. When Ms. Punt made an accommodation request to her employer by e-mail on December 5, 2011, she knew that: 1) it looked like she had an “early stage” breast cancer; 2) she could not come to work either the next day or the rest of the week, and 3) she could return to work thereafter, but would need some time off for five (5) radiation treatments. Later that same day, without requesting any further information, and without the benefit of any medical documentation, her employers fired her.

The district court granted summary judgment against the Plaintiff regarding her failure to accommodate claim, based on an out-of-context interpretation of Cisneros v. Wilson (10th Cir. 2000), regarding whether her request for medical leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was “indefinite.” Specifically, the district court erred by: 1) finding that the Plaintiff’s accommodation request amounted to a request for indefinite leave, and was thus unreasonable as a matter of law, because she could not specify how long her impairment would last, and therefore guarantee that she would not need additional future leave; 2) imposing no obligation on the Defendant to engage in the ADA’s interactive process; and 3) focusing on her cancer’s duration rather than on its workplace impact.

Our amicus brief makes three arguments:

1) It describes the extent to which the facts of this case are clearly distinguishable from the peculiar facts of Cisneros and its progeny, which were relied upon by the district court in concluding that the Plaintiff’s leave request was per se unreasonable;

2) It argues that because of the uncertainty inherent in any diagnosis of cancer, almost every person in the early stages of their illness will be unable to satisfy the district court’s interpretation of what Cisneros requires, and under the district court’s analysis, such individuals can be terminated from their jobs based on their employer’s sheer speculation as to what the course of the disease might be, something even the best informed doctors are unable to predict. Rather than enabling these individuals to remain in the workforce to the extent they are able during treatment and hopefully thereafter, the “duration of impairment” standard paves the way for their termination before the extent of their illnesses and their need for treatment can be determined medically; and

3) It urges the court to hold that the interpretation of Cisneros relied upon by the district court is no longer tenable, in light of intervening circuit and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, as well as the enactment of the ADA Amendments Act.

Our brief was written by NELA member Lorrie McKinley (McKinley & Ryan, LLC in West Chester, PA), and was reviewed by NELA members Brian East (Disability Rights Texas in Austin, TX) and Dara Smith (AARP Foundation Litigation in Washington, DC).  The brief is available for download from the Amicus Library on The NELA Exchange.