The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held that an employer's refusal to offer an employee a two- or three-month medical leave of absence following his exhaustion of his Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) entitlement was not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), affirming the dismissal of the plaintiff's ADA claim on summary judgment. Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sep. 20, 2017). Employers considering requests for leaves of absence may find the court's reasoning instructive in assessing the limits of what may be a "reasonable accommodation" required by the law.
The Employee's Request for Leave
In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the employee suffered a back injury that led him to take an FMLA leave. On the expiration date of his 12 weeks of FMLA leave, he underwent back surgery. Two weeks prior to his surgery, he had informed his employer of his intended surgery and the typical two-month recovery time required following surgery. His employer terminated his employment upon the expiration of his FMLA leave, and invited the employee to reapply for employment when he had recovered and was medically cleared to work. He was medically cleared to resume his work duties three months after his surgery. He never reapplied for employment, but instead initiated a lawsuit, claiming that the employer had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA by failing to accommodate his disability.
Protections Afforded by the ADA
The fundamental premise of the Severson decision is, "The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement." Slip op. at 2. It prohibits discrimination against "a qualified individual on the basis of disability" (42 U.S.C. §§12101 et seq.) where a "qualified individual" is a person with a disability who, "with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position." Id. §12111(8). The court concluded that an employee who requires a long-term medical leave is unable to perform the functions of his job during his leave and is, thereby, not a "qualified person" under the ADA. Slip op. at 2 (citing Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003).
An employee is unable to perform his job duties while on a multimonth leave of absence. Therefore, a multimonth leave cannot be a reasonable accommodation. The Seventh Circuit reiterated its holding in Byrne, stating "an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working." Slip op. at 7.
The court did leave open the possibility that, in certain circumstances, a brief period of leave to deal with a medical condition could be a reasonable accommodation, such as for intermittent conditions that prevent an employee from doing their jobs for several days or perhaps weeks (not months) at a time. Id. at 8. The court analogized those types of circumstances to providing a part-time or modified work schedule, which are spelled out in the ADA as examples of appropriate "reasonable accommodations." Id., citing 42 U.S.C. §12111(9)
Return to Work
The Seventh Circuit explicitly rejected the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) argument, made in an amicus curiae brief, that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is 1) of a definite, time-limited duration, 2) requested in advance and 3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns. The court concluded that such a reading, which does not consider the length of the absence at all, only the ability to return to work at its end, to improperly equate a "reasonable" accommodation with an "effective" accommodation. That approach is contrary to the Supreme Court's decision in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391, 400 (2002), which observed that an effective accommodation could prove unreasonable.
Guidance for Employers
Employers remain under an obligation to consider the individual circumstances of each request for accommodation made by their employees. However, employers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, in particular, may now make their assessments with an understanding of the one-month "cap" required of them in terms of requests for leaves of absence. Employers in other parts of the country may consider this decision as guidance for how to address the proposed reasonableness of employee requests for leave.