Long Term Leave Not a Reasonable Accommodation

On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a decision by a district court, holding that the failure to provide an employee with long-term medical leave is not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The decision, Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.,_ F.3d _, 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), rejects the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) position that long-term medical leave may qualify as a reasonable accommodation.

Severson worked for Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., in a position for which heavy lifting was an essential function. In 2013, he took 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave due to back pain. On the last day of leave, he had back surgery, which required that he take another two to three months of leave from work to recuperate. He asked if he could continue his medical leave, but because he has exhausted his FMLA leave, Heartland denied the request and told him that he could reapply for a position once he was medically cleared to work.

After three months, Severson was cleared to work again but he did not reapply. He sued Heartland, alleging that the company had violated the ADA because it failed to provide him with the reasonable accommodation of three months of leave.

The district court granted summary judgment to Heartland on the ADA claim, holding that, although Severson was disabled under the ADA, no reasonable jury could find that he could perform the essential functions of his position, with or without reasonable accommodation, at the time of his termination.

Among other arguments, Severson asserted that he was a qualified individual because he could eventually have performed the essential functions of the position (after two or three months of leave). But the district court stated that while inability to perform essential functions of a position for a period of a couple of weeks may not disqualify an individual, an employer is not required to grant months off. The Seventh Circuit agreed, emphasizing that a “multimonth leave of absence” is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit stated that because “reasonable accommodation” is defined as an accommodation that allows the employee to perform the essential functions of the position, a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation because the employee is not working. The court also explained that, in some cases, a brief period of leave (such as a couple of days or a couple of weeks) might be a reasonable accommodation because it is analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule, both of which are potentially reasonable accommodations.

But multiple months is too long of a period and employees who need a multimonth leave are covered by the FMLA, not the ADA.

The court’s holding was at odds with the EEOC’s position that long-term medical leave may not be a reasonable accommodation i.f it is of a definite, time-limited duration, requested in advance, and likely to allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the position when he returns to work. But the court explained what it saw as the flaws in that position. First, that the EEOC’s position equates “reasonable accommodation” with “effective accommodation.” The ADA requires a reasonable accommodation to be effective, but just because a particular accommodation is effective, it is not necessarily reasonable. Second, the court pointed out that, under EEOC’s reasoning, the length of the leave was irrelevant. Such a reading of the ADA would transform it into an open-ended extension of the FMLA, which is not the purpose of the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit’s decision conflicts with several other circuits, which have held that requests for ADA leave must be evaluated on a case by case basis and that a requested accommodation must be granted unless it would cause undue hardship to the employer.

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