The Fourth Circuit recently issued an opinion that highlights the importance of maintaining regular communication with an employee who is out on leave. In Thomas v. City of Annapolis, Maryland, a police officer injured his knee on the job and was offered a permanent desk job. After declining this offer, the officer was placed on leave. The officer was eventually placed on unpaid leave after he exhausted his paid leave and short-term disability. While out on leave, the city made attempts to seek updates from the officer, but he failed to return his supervisor’s calls. The Plaintiff was ultimately fired for his failure to maintain contact with his supervisors.
The officer filed a suit against the city for race and disability discrimination, claiming that his work performance was satisfactory. However, the Fourth Circuit held that the City had reasonable concluded that the officer had abandoned his position, given his refusal to return his supervisor’s calls. Critically, the Court held that although Thomas may have intended to return, this was irrelevant because it is the perception of the employer that matters when assessing the legality of an adverse action. The facts showed that, from the City’s perspective, it was reasonable to believe that the officer abandoned his position, and therefore the City had a legitimate reason for termination.
The lessons from this case are clear. On the employer side, the case highlights how important it is to regularly reach out to employees who are out on leave. By maintaining contact, employers can avoid liability for failing to engage in the “interactive process” mandated by the ADA. On the employee side, failure maintain contact with your supervisor might give your employer a legitimate, non-discrimination reason for termination.