PASADENA, Calif. (Legal Newsline) — A federal court has dismissed a bookkeeper’s lawsuit against a small parish church for an alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Alice Mendoza filed the lawsuit against Nativity Church when, after returning from sick leave for 10 months under the ADA, her position was made part-time. During the course of her leave, the pastor at the church took over her bookkeeping duties, which he found he could easily perform in addition to his other responsibilities.

When Mendoza returned from the sick leave, the pastor offered her part-time employment, which Mendoza declined. In her suit she alleged Nativity Church didn’t offer her reasonable accommodation under the ADA. She is claiming that she should have been reinstated to her original position upon her return because she was under ADA leave.

When heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the judge dismissed the claim, stating that there was no evidence by the plaintiff that the decision to offer her part-time wasn’t a business decision and had nothing to do with her medical condition or disability. There is no requirement in the ADA that an employer must reinstate an employee to their former position.

Regarding whether this decision will have an impact on employers going forward as a way to change or eliminate a position upon an employee’s leave, Jonathan Crotty, partner at Parker Poe, told Legal Newline it has a limited impact.

"For companies covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act, they may conclude that the risks of having to defend an interference with leave rights claim does not justify a refusal to reinstate the employee from leave," he said.

"Instead, they may decide to reinstate the employee, and over time document the lack of need for the position before making the decision to eliminate it. By removing this decision in time from the leave, this could lessen the connection between the two events.”

Mendoza’s case may have had a better chance had it fallen under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA features a requirement that employers must allow an employee that is on FMLA leave to come back to their full former position upon his or her return.

“Even in situations where only the ADA applies, an employer would still want to be careful about a decision to eliminate the position at this time,” Crotty said.

“Unlike this case, another plaintiff may be able to come up with enough evidence questioning the motive behind the decision to avoid summary judgment and send the case to a jury for trial.”

It remains to be seen if Mendoza will appeal the court’s decision and if a higher court will hear the case.

“I doubt that this is an issue that the (U.S. Supreme Court) would view as appropriate for review,” Crotty said. “A more likely outcome may be a request for review by the complete Ninth Circuit en banc. However, given that this was a per curiam decision, the Ninth Circuit may also decline additional review.”

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