Susan L. Bickley and Emery G. Richards
In a victory for employers in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, the Seventh Circuit ruled recently that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require employers to give workers extended additional leave after their allotment under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) runs out. The Court’s ruling in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. is the strongest rejection of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) long-held and vigorously advocated position that long-term leaves are a required form of reasonable accommodation.
Employee Raymond Severson was fired after asking for an additional two to three months of time off shortly before his scheduled return from FMLA leave. The Seventh Circuit concluded that Heartland did not have to give Severson that additional extended time off to recover from back surgery because the ADA only requires companies to make “reasonable” accommodations when doing so would allow the employee to work. The ruling is significant because the Seventh Circuit held that even multi-month leaves of absence that are definite in term and sought in advance are not required as a reasonable accommodation by the ADA.
The Court expressly held that “a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation” under the ADA and, after analyzing the relevant statutory language, concluded that it “is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”
The facts of the case are somewhat commonplace in today’s workplace. Severson had a chronic back condition before he went to work for Heartland that would occasionally flare up and affect his ability to walk, bend, lift, sit, stand, move, and work. In June 2013, Severson’s back condition flared up, and he took a leave from work (which was approved under the FMLA). Over the summer months, he submitted periodic notes from his doctor informing Heartland that he was receiving treatment and could not work.
Two weeks before his FMLA leave expired, he informed Heartland that his back condition had not improved, that he would require surgery on the date that his FMLA leave was scheduled to expire, and that the anticipated recovery time for this surgery was typically at least two months. Heartland notified Severson the day before his scheduled surgery that his employment with Heartland would end when his FMLA leave expired the following day and encouraged 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 suit.
The Seventh Circuit’s ruling is particularly significant because it departs from the interpretation of the ADA advocated by the EEOC in this and other cases. In its opinion, the Seventh Circuit took special care to explicitly reject the EEOC’s argument (asserted in a friend-of-the-court brief) 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 the employee to perform the essential functions of his job when he returns. The Court explained that a “reasonable accommodation is expressly limited to those measures that will enable an employee to work” and stressed that “[a]n employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.” The Court concluded that “[s]imply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” Perhaps more importantly, the Court found that the EEOC’s rationale would transform the ADA into a medical leave statute—“in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA”—which the Court found “untenable.”
Nevertheless, 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.” But the Seventh Circuit was unequivocal in emphasizing that the “[i]nability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.”
The Seventh Circuit’s decision is at odds with decisions in other circuits (including the First, Sixth, Ninth, and Tenth) and, ultimately, may necessitate a decision by the Supreme Court. In the meantime, employers should be aware of how courts in their judicial district interpret the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirement before rejecting a request for an extended leave of absence as an accommodation for a disability.