Court Provides Much-Needed Guidance on Employee Leaves of Absence

In a groundbreaking decision, the federal appellate court in Chicago has held that employers are not required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to provide an employee with a long-term medical leave of absence after the employee has exhausted all of his or her leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. (7th Circuit, 9/20/17).

In this case, Severson, a former employee at Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., developed chronic back problems and was unable to work. After using up all of his FMLA leave, he informed Heartland that he needed surgery, which would result in him being unable to work for about two or three more months.  Heartland informed Severson that his employment would be terminated at the end of his FMLA leave, but gave him the opportunity to reapply when he was able to work again.

When he was medically cleared to work, Severson sued Heartland rather than reapplying, alleging that Heartland failed to reasonably accommodate him under the ADA. The District Court granted summary judgment in favor of Heartland, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.

The Seventh Circuit based its decision on the principle that the ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.  It reasoned that a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation because a reasonable accommodation is “limited to those measures that will enable the disabled employee to work.” When an employee requests long-term medical leave, however, the employee simply cannot work, regardless of the accommodations provided.

The court stated that by providing a leave of absence under the ADA, the employer would be excusing his not working rather than giving him the means to work. Thus, the court held that the “inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA,” and an employer is not required to provide a long-term leave of absence beyond the 12-week leave required by the FMLA.

It is important to note that this decision contradicts the EEOC’s longstanding guidance that an employee who is unable to return to work after exhausting all available time under FMLA must be given additional unpaid leave by employers under the ADA.

The EEOC, which filed a “friend of the court” brief in this case, argued that long-term medical leaves should still qualify as a reasonable accommodation when it is for a definite, time-limited duration, is requested in advance, and is likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he or she returns.  While a number of courts have agreed with this approach in the past, the Seventh Circuit disagreed, finding that the EEOC was equating reasonable accommodation with effective accommodation, which the Supreme Court has specifically rejected.

Importantly for employers, the court did note that short-term leave, such as a few days or a couple of weeks may still be required under certain circumstances. Furthermore, the court stated that prior to termination of employment, employers must first determine whether it has an open position that the employee can perform with or without reasonable accommodation.  If so, a transfer would be required.  However, employers are not required to create a position that does not exist simply to accommodate a disabled employee.

This case is welcome news for employers in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin who are struggling with employee leave of absence issues.  If you are such an employer, make sure to review your employee issue with one of the lawyers from Gould & Ratner LLP’s Human Resources and Employment Law Practice.

Gould & Ratner law clerk Jennifer Flood contributed to this post.