Time Is Not On Your Side: Severson V. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. And The Limits Of Reasonable Accommodations Under The ADA

by Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law
Contact

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law

Although less rare than the recent solar eclipse, common-sense results can be elusive when dealing with workplace discrimination lawsuits. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, however, recently delivered such a decision in the case of Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., in which the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s finding that a long-term medical leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”).  As the appellate court noted, the ADA “is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement,” and reasonable accommodations are those that are designed to enable an employee to work, not ensure that he cannot work.

The case arose when the plaintiff, Raymond Severson, an employee of the defendant, Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., aggravated a chronic back condition while at home, leaving him unable to perform his job’s essential functions. His physician treated him with steroid injections, but they did not remedy his condition, and he elected to undergo disc decompression surgery on the very last day of his twelve-week FMLA leave.  Two weeks earlier, Mr. Severson had advised Heartland of his imminent operation and requested that the company provide him with two-to-three months of additional time in which to recover.

Heartland declined Mr. Severson’s request, noting that he had exhausted his twelve-weeks of Family Medical Leave Act time, and it informed him that his employment would terminate when his FMLA leave expired. Heartland did, however, invite him to reapply for a position when he was medically cleared to return to work.  Approximately three months later, though, after his physician lifted all medical restrictions, Mr. Severson instead decided to sue, claiming that Heartland had violated the ADA by failing to accommodate his disability.  He alleged that Heartland could have accommodated him by providing him with the lengthy leave of absence he had requested, by transferring him to a vacant position, or by providing him with a temporary, light-duty position that did not entail heavy lifting.  Heartland responded that these proposed accommodations were not reasonable, and the federal district court agreed, entering summary judgment on Heartland’s behalf.

Affirming the trial court, the Seventh Circuit noted that the ADA proscribes discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” In turn, a “qualified individual” is an employee “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”  In Severson, there was no disagreement that the plaintiff had a disability, nor did the parties dispute the fact that frequently lifting fifty pounds or more was an essential job function which Mr. Severson had been unable to perform at the time of his discharge.  The question, then, was whether he was a “qualified individual” entitled to ADA protections, to which the Seventh Circuit answered “No.”

As noted, the determination of whether an individual is a qualified individual is predicated in relevant part upon whether accommodations will enable him or her to perform the essential functions of the job. The primary accommodation Mr. Severson sought, however — a two-to-three-month leave – was designed to prevent him from performing his job functions, at least during the time he would be on medical leave.  Citing its own precedent, the Seventh Circuit astutely noted, “[n]ot working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions,” adding that “[t]he rather common-sense idea is that if one is not able to be at work, one cannot be a qualified individual.”

The Seventh Circuit distinguished Mr. Severson’s requested leave from those situations in which an employee seeks intermittent time off or a short leave of absence — a few days, or even a couple of weeks — due to the individual’s impairment occasionally flaring up. The court noted that the latter situations are analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule, which are two forms of reasonable accommodations listed in the ADA.  In sharp contrast, in claiming that extended time off was a reasonable accommodation, Mr. Severson – with the full-throated support of the EEOC – sought to transform the ADA “into a medical-leave statute – in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”

The court also made short shrift of the other possible accommodations Mr. Severson raised, noting that he had failed to satisfy his burden of proving that there had been other vacant positions at the time of his discharge. Additionally, the court held that “an employer need not create a light duty positon for a non-occupationally injured employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation.”  This came with a caveat, however, the court observing that if an employer had a policy of creating light-duty positions for employees who were injured on the job, then the “same benefit ordinarily must be extended to an employee with a disability who is not occupationally injured unless the company can show undue hardship.”

What Does It Mean?

As the Seventh Circuit held in Severson, “[l]ong-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA,” and the ADA is not a kind of add-on.  In reaching its decision, the court underscored the fact that there should be some verifiable link connecting the employee’s limitations, the employer’s accommodations, and the position’s essential job functions.  In other words, if an employee demands accommodations that do not enable him to perform the essential functions of his or her position, employers are not required to provide them.  Furthermore, if there are no reasonable accommodations that would allow the employee to perform these functions, then that employee is not deemed a “qualified individual” under the ADA and is not entitled to its protections.

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.

© Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law
Contact
more
less

Pullman & Comley - Labor, Employment and Employee Benefits Law on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.