On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. held that a long-term leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). As we all know, the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against “qualified individuals” with disabilities, defining such individuals as applicants or employees who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job. Reaffirming its precedent in Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., the Seventh Circuit held that long-term leaves of absence are not reasonable accommodations because they do not allow employees to perform their job’s essential functions, but instead “excuse  not working.”
In this case, employee Severson took twelve weeks of leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) (the statutory maximum) due to severe back pain. Shortly before this leave expired, Severson contacted Heartland to inform them he was having back surgery on the last day of his FMLA leave. Severson requested an additional two to three months of leave in order to recover from his surgery. Heartland denied the request and terminated his employment upon the expiration of his FMLA leave, but invited Severson to reapply when he was medically cleared to return to work. Severson did not reapply and sued Heartland, arguing that the company discriminated against him under the ADA by failing to provide him with the reasonable accommodation of an extended leave of absence. (Severson also argued the company failed to provide him two other, alternative accommodations, but neither the parties nor the Court focused on these accommodations on appeal.).
Finding that Heartland did not violate the ADA by refusing to provide the additional leave, the Seventh Circuit unequivocally stated, “a long term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation,” because it is “not a means to perform the job’s essential functions.” The Court also explained that an employee who cannot not work, i.e., perform their job’s essential functions, is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA. Further highlighting its position, the Court distinguished between the FMLA, which it held was intended to provide leave for those who cannot work, while the ADA is meant to require accommodation only for those “that can.” Despite this finding, the Court left open the possibility that short-term leaves of absence – in durations of hours, days or “maybe” even weeks – may be reasonable accommodations, as they are akin to a modified or part-time schedule.
Note, however, guidance by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, who enforces the ADA and appeared amicus curiae in support of Severson, instructs quite differently that, “An employer must consider providing unpaid leave to an employee with a qualifying disability when the employee requires it, and so long as it does not present an undue hardship for the employer.”