In a favorable decision for employers, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently held that an employer was not required to accommodate an employee by granting him a two-month leave of absence following the exhaustion of his FMLA leave.
Raymond Severson worked for Heartland Woodcraft from 2006-2013. In 2010, he was diagnosed with back myelopathy which was caused by impaired functioning and degenerative changes in his back, neck, and spinal cord. In June 2013, Severson injured his back at home which heightened his condition and left him uncomfortable. Severson went on an approved FMLA leave of absence. In August, with just a few weeks of FMLA leave remaining, Severson informed Heartland Woodcraft that his condition had not improved and he needed surgery which would render him unable to work for at least two more months. Severson’s FMLA entitlement expired on August 27, which was the date of his scheduled surgery. Heartland Woodcraft informed Severson that his employment would end when his FMLA leave expired on August 27, but invited him to reapply when he recovered from surgery and was medically cleared to work. Instead of reapplying, Severson sued Heartland Woodcraft alleging discrimination against him in violation of the ADA by failing to accommodate his disability by granting the two-month, post-surgery leave of absence.
The federal district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment relying on a 2003 Seventh Circuit decision that found “the inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).”
The EEOC, which has sued and then negotiated million-dollar settlements against many employers that have policies requiring termination after non-FMLA leaves of absence extending beyond 6 months, took notice of the lower court decision and joined Severson’s appeal to the Seventh Circuit.
The Court’s Rationale
On appeal, the EEOC argued its long-standing position that any request for a leave of a “definite duration” that will allow the employee to return to work is reasonable under the ADA unless the employer can demonstrate the leave would cause undue hardship.
The Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s argument and found that an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot perform the essential functions of their job and is therefore not a “qualified individual” under the ADA. In affirming summary judgment for the employer, the court noted that the EEOC’s position would transform the ADA from an antidiscrimination statute into a medical leave law or “open-ended extension of the FMLA”.
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 modified work schedule, but that the “inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.”
Implications for Employers
Although this decision provides much needed clarity concerning extended leaves of absence under the ADA, employers should not assume that any leave of absence extending beyond 2 months is unprotected. First, the duty to accommodate disabled employees under state law (like the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act) occasionally differs from the duty under the ADA. Second, several other federal appeals courts have reached an opposite conclusion and recognized multi-month leaves as reasonable accommodations. Finally, even in the Seventh Circuit states of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, employers should still assess leave requests on a case-by-case basis.