The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require employers to give workers more leave after their Family and Medical Leave Act allotment runs out, the Seventh Circuit said recently. The Court ruled that employers could fire a worker who requested an extended leave shortly before his scheduled return. It affirmed its prior holdings on this issue, holding that a multi-month additional leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In this murky area for employers, the Seventh Circuit provided a degree of certainty regarding the interplay between the ADA and FMLA.
Consistent with its prior holdings, the unanimous panel in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft Inc. held that the ADA did not require employers to give workers a month long leave beyond their allotment under the Family and Medical Leave Act entitlement to recover from a medical condition The crux of the holding was that the ADA only requires companies to “reasonably accommodate” workers when doing so would allow them to work. But, an employee who cannot work due to long-term medical leave is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.
In Severson, the employee had a chronic condition that occasionally flared up but generally allowed him to work. In June 2013, he took FLMA leave after he injured his back. He was scheduled to have back surgery, which would have required him to be absent from work well past the expiration of his FMLA leave. He therefore asked his employer for an extended, two to three month, medical leave as an accommodation for his medical condition. Instead, the company fired him.
The court rejected Severson’s argument that the ADA required his employer to provide an extended leave of absence to recover from his surgery. In awarding summary judgment to Heartland, the court said that it did not violate the ADA because Severson would be unable to work during his requested absence. The ADA protects employees from discrimination only if they are a “qualified individual,” defined as someone who “with or without reasonable accommodation can perform the essential functions” of the job.
However, the Seventh Circuit confirmed its prior rulings, stating that “not working” is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions, and thus not a “reasonable accommodation.” Accordingly, an extended leave of absence would not give a disabled individual the means to work; it would simply excuse the absence from work, which is not the purpose of the ADA. As such, because Severson could not perform the job’s essential tasks, he was not qualified to do his job under the ADA. Notably, the court reiterated that a few days or even a few weeks of non-FMLA time to deal with an intermittent condition may be required under the ADA as a reasonable accommodation, but a “multi-month period” was disqualifying.
In rejecting the EEOC’s attempt to expand the Seventh Circuit’s view of extended absences as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the court provided more certainty to employers dealing with the complex interplay between the ADA and the FMLA.