The ADA is Not a Medical-Leave Entitlement for Employees, the Seventh Circuit Holds

A request for a multi-month medical leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Employers are called upon to balance the interests of running their businesses in a competitive environment and also balancing rights of employees. One such area that seems to be ever-expanding is an employee’s right to leave.

A frequent form of leave taken by employees is medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA affords qualified employees the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave in the course of a 12-month period for a medical condition of themselves or a family member. FMLA also provides protection for employees upon return to employment.

Employers often find themselves in a situation where an employee has exhausted their FMLA and then request additional leave because the medical condition continues. This places employers in a difficult position where they may want to accommodate an employee, however, they know that their business will suffer by continuing to hold a position open. After FMLA has been exhausted, an analysis for additional leave is controlled by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations so that a disabled employee can complete their job. The ADA provides that a covered employer shall not “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). In order to establish a claim for failure to accommodate, a plaintiff must show that (s)he is a “qualified individual with a disability.” EEOC v. Sears, Robuck & Co., 417 F.3d 789, 797 (7th Cir.2005). A qualified individual is defined as “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8).

In a decision that has employers rejoicing, the Seventh Circuit recently ruled that an “employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a “qualified individual” with a disability” under the ADA. Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 14-C-1141, 2015 WL 7113390, at *1 (E.D. Wis. Nov. 12, 2015), aff'd, 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017). In making this holding, the court concluded that the “ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”

The facts of this case were fairly straightforward. Severson was an employee of Heartland and suffered from back pain and degeneration of his spine. He requested and received FMLA for a period of 12 weeks. On the day that the 12 week period was set to expire, Severson was scheduled to have back surgery and the expected recovery time was at least two months. Severson requested this additional time for leave. Heartland informed Severson that his position would be terminated when FMLA was exhausted; however, he could re-apply to the position once medically cleared. Instead of re-applying upon medical clearance, Severson sued alleging that he was discriminated against based on his disability.

The court articulated a fairly bright line rule that a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation. The court indicated that a reasonable accommodation is one that allows the disabled employee to “perform the essential functions of the employment position.” The court held that the request of long term leave does not help an individual perform essential functions, but excuses the absence. Thus, an employee in this situation is not protected under the ADA.

Before employers rely on this case too quickly, however, they must be advised that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the commission responsible for ADA claims prior to appeal, rigorously opposed the finding in Severson. In addition, the First, Fifth, Sixth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh circuits have all held that a leave of absence or leave extension may be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances. Employers must review the laws of the circuit in which they reside, but also be mindful that, given the split in circuits, the issue is ripe for being heard by the United States Supreme Court.

Creating rigid policies, such as never allowing extended periods of leave beyond FMLA, is never recommended. Employers should always make a holistic assessment as to whether or not accommodations are appropriate and feasible. If you find your business in the situation where an employee is requesting long-term leave, or if you want to be pro-active and create policies to assist in situations such as these, you should consult with an attorney.


Questions?

If you have any questions on this topic or would like more information, please contact Labor & Employment attorney Lida Bannink at 715-386-3733, or email at lbannink@eckberglammers.com.

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