Seyfarth Synopsis: The Seventh Circuit sent shockwaves through the EEOC and through the employer community by concluding that multi-month leaves of absence, even those that are definite in term and sought in advance, are not required by the ADA.

To the surprise of many observers, and undoubtedly the EEOC, the Seventh Circuit held last week in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., — F. 3d — Case No. 14-cv-1141 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017) that “a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. Id. at 7. Judge Sykes, on behalf of a power panel that included Chief Judge Wood and Judge Easterbrook, analyzed the language of the ADA and concluded that it “is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” Id. at 2.

The facts of the case are straightforward. Severson had a chronic back condition that pre-dated his employment at Heartland that would occasionally flare up and affect his ability to walk, bend, lift, sit stand, move and work. In June 2013, Severson experienced such a flare-up and took a leave from work. Over the summer months, he submitted periodic notes from his doctor informing Heartland that he was receiving treatment and could not work.

Heartland approved his request for 12 weeks of FMLA leave. Two weeks before his leave expired, he informed Heartland that his condition had not improved and that he would need surgery the date that his leave expired, and that the typical recovery time for this surgery was at least two months. Heartland notified Severson the day before his surgery that his employment with Heartland would end when his FMLA leave expired the following day and invited him to reapply with the company when he recovered from surgery and was medically cleared to work. He recovered several months later and, instead of reapplying, filed a lawsuit. The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of Heartland on Severson’s ADA claims and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The EEOC filed an amicus brief and participated in oral argument. In its opinion, the court took special care to explicitly reject the EEOC’s argument that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is of a definite, time-limited duration, requested in advance, and likely to enable to perform the essential functions of his job when he returns. The court found the EEOC’s reading of the statute to equate “reasonable accommodation” with “effective accommodation,” a concept rejected by the Supreme Court in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391 (2002). Severson at 9. More importantly, the court found that by the EEOC’s logic, the length of the leave did not matter and therefore transformed the ADA into a medical leave statute—“in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA”—which the court found “untenable.” Id.

The court left open the possibility that “intermittent time off or a short leave—say, a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule.” Id. at 8. But, relying upon prior precedent from Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003), the court found that the “[i]nability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.” Id.

This decision is the firmest and most comprehensive rebuke of the EEOC’s long-held and vigorously pursued position that long-term leaves are a required form of reasonable accommodation. The Chicago office of the EEOC, in particular, has leveraged multi-million dollar settlements in the past after suing employers that actually had long term, “multi-month” extended leave policies in place, but were unwilling to extend leaves beyond six months or even a year. This avenue of ADA attack now appears blocked in the Seventh Circuit.

Employers must proceed with great caution in this area for several reasons. First, the Seventh Circuit’s decision arguably conflicts with decisions in the First, Sixth, Ninth and Tenth Circuits (at least according to the EEOC’s amicus brief at pp. 15-16 ). As a result, employers with a national footprint cannot assume this same rule will apply outside of the Seventh Circuit. Second, Severson could seek rehearing en banc, likely with the EEOC’s support. Given the panel in Severson, though, a rehearing bid may be an uphill battle.