Why it matters

Taking a position similar to that of a recent decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, the Eleventh Circuit held that indefinite leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A utility service technician injured his shoulder at work and was given several restrictions on his physically demanding job. He took Family and Medical Leave Act time as well as leave pursuant to an employer policy and eventually underwent surgery. When his leave expired before he was able to return to work, he was terminated for being unable to perform the essential functions of his job. Alleging the employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, he sued. A district court judge granted summary judgment for the employer, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in a per curiam opinion. Even though the worker’s condition was temporary rather than chronic—and thus likely to be fully corrected at some point in the future—he did not request a specific period of time in which to recover from his surgery, the court explained. “Rather, he was essentially requesting a leave of absence that would allow him to work ‘at some indefinite point in the future,’” which is not a reasonable accommodation, the federal appellate panel wrote.

Detailed discussion

A local governmental body, Emerald Coast Utilities Authority provides water, sewer and sanitation services in and around Escambia County, FL. Roderick Billups began working as a utility service technician II for Emerald Coast in 1995. The position was physically demanding, requiring Billups to routinely lift objects of moderate to heavy weight and wield tools such as jackhammers.

In December 2013, while attempting to open an old air-release valve, Billups felt something pop in his right shoulder. A visit to the doctor resulted in physical limitations that left him unable to perform the essential functions of his position. Billups began leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), expecting to return to work within a few weeks.

But when his condition did not improve, he underwent surgery in April 2014. His FMLA leave had already expired, but Emerald Coast had a policy providing 26 weeks of leave instead of 12 for on-the-job injuries. After surgery, Billups was told that he could expect to return to work without restriction in six months.

Emerald Coast notified Billups in writing that he was likely to be terminated due to his inability to perform the essential functions of his job by the time his leave ended. He requested a “predetermination” hearing, where he argued that he could be cleared for duty in July, although he would have to keep his arms close to his body while working.

Billups was terminated in June, when his leave ended. He was not cleared to return to work without restrictions until October. He then filed suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming that Emerald Coast failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability. A federal court judge granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and Billups appealed.

In an unpublished opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that Emerald Coast should have offered him a limited period of unpaid leave while he recovered from surgery.

A leave of absence might be a reasonable accommodation in some cases, the panel emphasized, but not in this one.

“[A]n accommodation is unreasonable under our precedent unless it would allow the employee to ‘perform the essential functions of their jobs presently or in the immediate future,’” the court wrote. “It is undisputed that Billups was unable to perform the essential functions of his position as of the date of his termination. And the record shows that Billups was essentially requesting a leave of absence that would allow him to work ‘at some indefinite point’ in the future.”

Billups did not request a specific period of time in which to recover, nor would it have been reasonable to expect him to, the court said, as he was still participating in physical therapy and it was uncertain when he would be cleared to return to work without the limitations that rendered him unable to perform the essential functions of his position.

“Thus, Billups’s request for additional leave was essentially an open-ended request for ‘sufficient time to ameliorate his conditions’ following the surgery,” the panel said. “Billups was not ‘terminated immediately upon becoming disabled,’ but rather received over six months of medical leave to allow recovery. That period of time ultimately was not sufficient, largely as a result of the surgery’s delay through no fault of Billups’s own. Nevertheless, in light of Emerald Coast’s allowance of six months of leave and the uncertainty about when Billups could perform the essential functions of his position in the future, Billups has not shown that a reasonable jury could conclude that he was denied a reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to perform the essential functions of his job either presently or in the immediate future.”

The court affirmed summary judgment in favor of the employer.

To read the opinion in Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, click here.