In a ruling that provides welcome clarity regarding an employer’s obligation to grant employee requests for long-term medical leave, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. that a medical leave of absence of several months is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The decision pushes back against guidance issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which filed an amicus brief in the case, indicating that even an extended period of leave may be required under the ADA so long as it is likely to enable the employee to do his or her job when he or she returns.
In Severson, the plaintiff worked as a shift leader for Heartland Woodcraft in a role that required him to engage in manual labor and frequently lift materials weighing 50 pounds or more. In June 2013, Mr. Severson requested and was granted leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to seek medical treatment after he aggravated a pre-existing back condition, which left him unable to work. Shortly before he exhausted his twelve-week FMLA leave entitlement, Mr. Severson notified his employer that he was scheduled for back surgery on the last day of his FMLA leave and requested an additional two to three months of leave in order to recover from the procedure. Heartland Woodcraft denied his request and terminated his employment upon the expiration of his FMLA leave, but invited him to reapply when he was cleared to return to work. Mr. Severson instead filed suit against Heartland Woodcraft, alleging that it had denied him a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
The Seventh Circuit disagreed, holding that a multi-month leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA as a matter of law, because an employee who is unable to work for that length of time cannot perform the essential functions of his position, and thus is not a “qualified individual” under the statute. Rather, the court held that “[l]ong-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA,” which entitles covered employees to twelve weeks of leave during any twelve-month period when they have a serious health condition that renders them unable to perform the functions of their position. In contrast, the ADA applies only to those qualified individuals “who can do the job.” The court also held that Heartland Woodcraft had no obligation to create a light duty position for Mr. Severson that did not require him to do any heavy lifting, given that the company did not have a policy of doing so for employees who suffered work-related injuries.
The Seventh Circuit’s decision in Severson is significant because it provides employers in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana with clear guidance in an area of law without many bright-line rules, and because the court’s reasoning is likely to be persuasive to other courts grappling with how much leave is reasonable under the ADA. Nonetheless, employers with a national presence should still proceed with caution in jurisdictions outside of the Seventh Circuit, given holdings by other federal appeals courts and the EEOC’s continued belief that lengthy leave periods may constitute reasonable accommodations under certain circumstances.