This week the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision helpful to employers grappling with whether they must extend an employee’s time off following the expiration of Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). See Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754, 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir., Sept. 20, 2017).
In Severson, the court found that “[a] multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” Plaintiff, Severson, had a physically demanding job working for a fabricator of retail display fixtures. Severson took twelve weeks of FMLA leave due to serious back pain. During his leave, he scheduled back surgery (to occur on the last day of his FMLA leave), and requested an additional three months of leave. Defendant, Heartland, denied Severson’s request to continue his medical leave beyond the FMLA entitlement, terminated his employment, and invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work. Instead, Severson sued, alleging disability discrimination.
In affirming summary judgment in favor of the employer, the 7th Circuit noted that “[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” Following its earlier decision in Byrne v. Avon Prods., 328 F.3d 379 (7th Cir. 2003), the court also stated that “an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.” In other words, “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” Id. Simply put, offering a reasonable accommodation does not require absolving the employee from performing the essential functions of the position.
In support of the employee in Severson, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) argued that a long-term medical leave of absence – beyond that required by the FMLA – should qualify as a reasonable accommodation if it is for a definite time period, is requested in advance, and would enable the employee to perform his or her job on return from leave. (The EEOC’s general position regarding Granting Leave as Reasonable Accommodation is available here: https://www.eeoc.gov/eeoc/publications/ada-leave.cfm (May 9, 2016).) Rejecting this argument, the Seventh Circuit found that the EEOC’s interpretation would effectively transform the ADA into an open-ended extension of the FMLA.
While employers can be encouraged by the 7th Circuit’s ruling in Severson, they should continue to conduct an individualized, fact-specific inquiry into any particular employee’s request for accommodation, including a leave of absence. In this regard, the court was careful to note that intermittent leave, such as for conditions that may require periodic time off due to flare-ups, and even short leaves of absence, “say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks,” could be considered reasonable accommodations in certain circumstances.