Brian M. O'Neal

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7th Circuit Rejects The EEOC’s Current Position Regarding Long-Term Leave As A Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., Case No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. 2017), Plaintiff Raymond Severson took a 12-week leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) due to serious back pain.  On the last day of his FMLA leave, Severson had back surgery that required him to remain off work for 2-3 additional months after the surgery.  Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. (“Heartland”) denied Severson’s request for the additional 2-3 months of leave and terminated his employment when his FMLA leave ended.  Heartland invited Severson to reapply for a position when he was medically cleared to work.

Approximately three months later, a doctor cleared Severson to work. Instead of reapplying for a position with Heartland, however, Severson chose to sue Heartland, asserting he was discriminated against in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) due, among other things, to Heartland’s failure to provide him with three months of additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.  The district court awarded summary judgment in favor of Heartland on the ADA claim and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed the decision.

In rejecting Severson’s position, the 7th Circuit stated: “[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”  Significantly, the Court further stated: “[a] multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”  The Court noted in dicta that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence (for example, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks) may, in appropriate circumstances, be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  However, “a medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job.”

The decision by the 7th Circuit is a significant departure from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (“EEOC”) current position that employers must consider providing extended leave, after expiration of an employee’s available FMLA leave, as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA for employees suffering from disabilities.  According to the EEOC, 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/she returns to work.  The 7th Circuit expressed concern that, if accepted, the EEOC’s position could turn the ADA into a medical leave statute that allows for an open ended extension of FMLA leave.  In this regard, the Court stated, “[t]he FMLA protects up to 12 weeks of medical leave, recognizing that employees will sometimes be unable to perform their job duties due to a serious health condition. In contrast, ‘the ADA applies only to those who can do the job.’”

While the decision in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. should be a welcome sign for employers desiring some clarity regarding how much, if any, leave needs to be provided as an accommodation under the ADA, there is still significant uncertainty in this area.  To date, the 7th Circuit decision is the strongest rejection by a federal appellate court of the EEOC’s position regarding long-term leave as a reasonable accommodation.  Federal courts have taken varying approaches to such cases, meaning the U.S. Supreme Court may ultimately need to address the issue.  Additionally, there is no reason to believe the EEOC will modify its position in the near future regarding long-term leave under the ADA.  For now, it is still best practice for employers to have flexible leave policies and take a case-by-case approach to leave requests, recognizing that, in some cases, additional leave beyond that required by the FMLA may be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The St. Louis employment law attorneys at McMahon Berger have been representing employers across the country in labor and employment matters, including those relating to disability discrimination, for almost sixty years, and are available to discuss these issues and others.  As always, the foregoing is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice regarding any particular situation or issue. The choice of a lawyer is an important decision and should not be based solely on advertisements.

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