Court Finds Long Term Leave Is Not a Reasonable Accommodation
According to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, “A multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the [Americans with Disabilities Act],” a position that is directly contrary to that of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Facts of the Case: In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the employee exhausted his 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act leave and requested an additional 2-3 months of leave to recuperate from back surgery. The employer denied his request, terminated his employment, and invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to return to work. Instead, the employee sued, alleging, among other things, that the employer had failed to provide a reasonable accommodation of 3 months of additional leave. The district court found in favor of the employer, and the employee appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
The Court’s Ruling: In affirming judgment for the employer, the Seventh Circuit flatly asserted, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Seventh Circuit further stated that the ADA only protects qualified individuals with a disability, and that in order to be qualified, the individual must be able to perform the essential functions of the job with or without a reasonable accommodation. However, “An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.” Although the Seventh Circuit acknowledged that a brief period of leave could be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances, enabling the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, it specifically stated that a long-term leave does not permit an employee to do the job.
In addition, the Seventh Circuit pointedly noted that “Long-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA, … recognizing that employees will sometimes be unable to perform their job duties due to a serious health condition. In contrast, the ADA applies only to those who can do the job.”
The Seventh Circuit specifically rejected the EEOC’s argument that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is (1) of a definite, time-limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns. The Seventh Circuit observed that, under the EEOC’s position, “the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.” This interpretation, held the Seventh Circuit, was untenable.
Lessons Learned: Employers frequently struggle with requests for extended leave. Although employers in the Seventh Circuit can rely on this ruling to deny requests of more than 2-3 months as a matter of course, employers elsewhere must recognize that the EEOC generally considers such leaves to be a reasonable accommodation and will require an employer to demonstrate that such leave constitutes an undue hardship before denying the request.