In a substantial victory for employers, the Seventh Circuit recently held that an extended medical leave after the expiration of FMLA leave was not a reasonable accommodation required by the ADA. Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, 7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017. This ruling is a significant rebuttal of the EEOC’s enforcement stance that employees are entitled to leave as a reasonable accommodation.
In Severson, an employee used his entire FMLA leave allotment to deal with back pain issues. On the last day of his FMLA leave, the employee had back surgery, which required him to miss work for an additional two to three months. Severson requested leave from work for the time he needed to recover from the surgery. Heartland denied his request and terminated his employment but invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.
Severson sued Heartland for disability discrimination. The District Court awarded summary judgment in favor of the employer and dismissed the employee’s ADA discrimination claims. In affirming the District Court decision, the Seventh Circuit held that “the ADA is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement.” The Court further held that “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… A multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” The Court did leave open the possibility that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence, such as a “couple of days or even a couple of weeks”, may in certain circumstances be a reasonable accommodation analogous to a part time or modified work schedule.
Not every jurisdiction has adopted this position, and there are numerous decisions opining about how much leave is reasonable under disability discrimination laws. Thus, employers still need to consider requests for short term leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation. Moreover, employers will also need to continue to engage in the interactive process to see if other potential reasonable accommodations besides long term leave would be applicable.
This article was authored by Chad J. Sullivan Jackson Kelly PLLC.