Why it matters

Once an employee has used up his Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allotment, he is not entitled to take additional time off pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit recently ruled. A fabricator for Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., Raymond Severson took 12 weeks of FMLA leave for back pain. On his last day of leave, Severson had back surgery that necessitated up to three months of time off. He asked for additional leave pursuant to the ADA, but his employer denied the request and terminated his employment, suggesting he reapply for his job after being medically cleared for work. Instead, Severson filed suit. Affirming summary judgment in favor of the employer, the Seventh Circuit explained that a multimonth leave of absence was beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation, which is limited to measures that enable an employee to work. Employees who need long-term medical care cannot work and are therefore not qualified individuals with a disability under the ADA, the panel said, which is “an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement.”

Detailed discussion

From 2006 to 2013, Raymond Severson worked as a fabricator of retail display fixtures for Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. The work was physically demanding and Severson suffered from back pain for several years. In 2013, he took a 12-week leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) after wrenching his back and aggravating his condition.

Toward the end of his leave, Severson reached out to his employer to explain that because the injury had not improved, his doctor recommended he undergo surgery that would require an additional two to three months of recovery time. But because Severson had already maxed out his FMLA leave, Heartland denied the leave request. The company encouraged Severson to reapply for his job once he was medically cleared to work.

Severson underwent surgery and was eventually permitted to return to work by his doctor. Instead of reapplying for his job, however, he filed suit alleging the employer discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by not accommodating his physical disability when it denied his request for a two-to-three-month leave of absence.

Heartland moved for summary judgment, arguing that the proposed accommodation was not reasonable. A district court judge in Wisconsin sided with the employer and granted the motion.

Severson appealed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit affirmed.

While the concept of a “reasonable accommodation” is flexible, the baseline requirement found in the definition of a “qualified individual” is concrete, the court said: “A ‘reasonable accommodation’ is one that allows the disabled employee to ‘perform the essential functions of the employment position.’ If the proposed accommodation does not make it possible for the employee to perform his job, then the employee is not a ‘qualified individual’ as that term is defined in the ADA.”

“Putting these interlocking definitions together, a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation,” the federal appellate panel concluded. “Simply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.”

A brief period of leave to deal with a medical condition could be a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances, the court acknowledged, as could intermittent time off. “But a medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job,” the panel said. “To the contrary, the ‘[i]nability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.’”

Long-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA, the court added.

The panel was not impressed with an amicus brief filed on behalf of the plaintiff by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The agency argued that a long-term medical leave of absence should be recognized as a reasonable accommodation when the leave was of a definite, time-limited duration, requested in advance, and likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns.

But the court expressed concern that the length of leave did not matter in the EEOC’s position, transforming the ADA “into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA. That’s an untenable interpretation of the term ‘reasonable accommodation.’”

“The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement,” the panel wrote. “An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA. … A multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

To read the opinion in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., click here.