A recent court case addressed the question of whether a leave of absence can be a reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., decided by the United States Court of Appels, Seventh Circuit.
From 2006 to 2013, Raymond Severson worked for Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures. The work was physically demanding. In early June 2013, Severson took a 12-week medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to deal with serious back pain. On the last day of his leave, he underwent back surgery, which required that he remain off of work for another two or three months.
Severson asked Heartland to continue his medical leave, but by then he had exhausted his FMLA entitlement. The company denied his request for leave and terminated his employment, but invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work. About three months later, Severson’s doctor lifted all restrictions and cleared him to resume work, but Severson did not reapply. Instead he sued Heartland alleging that it had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA, by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation — namely, a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired. The district court awarded summary judgment to Heartland and Severson appealed.
The 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, saying that the ADA is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement. The ADA forbids discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability. A qualified individual with a disability is a person who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position. The term reasonable accommodation is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work. An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a qualified individual under the ADA.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had filed an amicus brief on behalf of Severson and participated in oral arguments. In its opinion, the court explicitly rejected the EEOC’s argument 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 to perform the essential functions of his job when he returns.
The 7th Circuit said that a multi month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The court left open the possibility that intermittent time off or a short leave may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule.
While this decision is generally good news for employers, employers should still proceed with caution before denying leave as an accommodation under the ADA. This case only serves as a precedent in the 7th Circuit (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin), while other circuit courts have reached different opinions. The case is also subject to appeal. Employers should continue to engage in the interactive process with employees requesting leaves and can explore other alternatives to leaves, such as transfer to a vacant position or temporary light-duty assignments.