Lengthy Leave of Absence Loses Reasonable Accommodation Status Under the ADA

by Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP

​As employers throughout the country know, what constitutes a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) can be a difficult and very fact-specific inquiry.  Frequently, employers are faced with the question of how long they are required to allow an employee to take a leave of absence for their own medical condition. Of course, the EEOC and many courts have taken the position that an individualized assessment must be made, a “bright line” rule of terminating an employee after a maximum amount of leave violates the ADA, and that long-term leaves of absence are a required accommodation.

However, in a recent case that is sure to interest employers, the Seventh Circuit in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., __ F.3d __,  Case No. 14-cv-1141 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), held that the ADA is “an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”  The Court added that “a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.  This ruling is a strong rebuke against the position that the EEOC and many courts have taken that anextended, long-term leave of absence is a required form of reasonable accommodation pursuant to the ADA.

In Severson, the plaintiff worked as a fabricator for his employer.  Due to back pain, he requested, and was granted, 12 weeks of FMLA leave.  Prior to the expiration of his FMLA leave, he informed his employer that he would need surgery on the day his leave expired and that his recovery would be at least two additional months.  Thereafter, his employer terminated his employment when his FMLA leave expired and invited him to reapply when he recovered and was medically cleared to work.  Instead of reapplying, the plaintiff filed suit alleging disability discrimination. 

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.  In so holding, the Seventh Circuit explicitly rejected the EEOC’s argument that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation.  The Court added that the EEOC’s position that the length of leave did not matter, in effect, transformed the ADA into “an open-ended extension of the FMLA” which was not the purpose of the ADA.   

It is important to note that the Seventh Circuit left open the argument that an intermittent or short-term leave following an FMLA leave would be reasonable, but the inability to work “for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.” 

Time will tell whether this decision will extend its reach beyond the courts within the Seventh Circuit, especially since this decision appears to be in conflict with decisions in other Circuits.  However, it will undoubtedly be relied upon by employers throughout the country when faced with terminating employees who are on, or who have requested, multi-month leaves of absence due to their disability.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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