Seventh Circuit Holds that a Long-Term, Definite Leave of Absence Is NOT a Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA10.13.17
Since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was amended in 2009, employers have accepted, perhaps begrudgingly, that granting an employee a leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. This is true regardless of whether an employee is even eligible for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or has already exhausted FMLA. Frustratingly, there is no clear rule on how much leave an employer has to provide. Employers only know that they do not have to grant an indefinite leave of absence.
Thus, you may have been as shocked as I was to read the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision issued recently in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. The Court held that an employee was not entitled to additional leave after exhausting FMLA leave because it was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
In Severson, the plaintiff held a physically demanding job for the employer and received 12 weeks of leave under the FMLA due to back pain. On the last day of his FMLA leave, he had back surgery, which necessitated an additional three months of leave. The plaintiff requested the additional leave as a reasonable accommodation. The employer denied his request, but invited him to reapply when able. The plaintiff was released with no restrictions three months after back surgery. Instead of reapplying, he filed suit alleging that the employer failed to accommodate him under the ADA.
In affirming the grant of summary judgment to the employer, the Court declared that the “ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement.” <Insert applause from employers everywhere.> According to the Seventh Circuit, the term “‘reasonable accommodation’ is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work. An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.” And, to wrap it all up with a nice bow, the Court concluded by saying “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.”
While this is a positive development for employers it does not automatically mean reinstating old policies that did not consider leave as a reasonable accommodation for terminated employees who could not return from FMLA. First, several courts have held differently. Second, this decision could get appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Given the split in authority among the Circuit Courts of Appeal on this issue, the Supreme Court could very well take up the matter. Third, the EEOC will continue to pursue its own agenda. In its amicus brief the EEOC argued that long-term medical leave is a reasonable accommodation, provided it is definite in duration, if it enables the employee to perform the essential functions of the job upon his return to work. We can assume the EEOC is training its investigators to enforce this and thus will pursue action against employers that do not accommodate such requests. We will continue to monitor this issue. Perhaps a clear rule on how much leave is reasonable will finally be provided.