News Alert: The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently addressed whether the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires employers to provide employees with leave beyond the 12 weeks provided by the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18197*, 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017). In a unanimous opinion, the Seventh Circuit held that an employer was not required to provide its employee with a long-term leave of absence of two- or three-months beyond the 12 weeks already provided by the FMLA, finding that the extended period of leave was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The court left open the question of whether employers may be required to provide extended leave beyond the 12 weeks provided by the FMLA for shorter periods.
The plaintiff-employee, Raymond Severson, had ongoing issues with back pain. In June of 2013, he took 12 weeks of FMLA leave for treatment of his back condition. On the last day of his leave, he underwent back surgery, which required him to be off work for another two-to-three months. The day prior to his surgery, the employer informed Severson that his employment would end when his FMLA leave expired the following day. The employer invited Severson to reapply with the company once he was medically cleared to work. Severson did not reapply, and instead, filed suit against the company alleging that it discriminated against him in violation of the ADA by failing to accommodate his physical disability. Severson contended that the company could have offered him accommodations including: 1) a two- or three-month leave of absence; 2) a transfer to a vacant job; or 3) a temporary light-duty position with no heavy lifting. The employer argued that Severson’s proposed accommodations were not reasonable. The Eastern District of Wisconsin granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.
In its discussion, the Seventh Circuit noted that a qualified individual under the ADA is one who can perform the essential job functions with or without a reasonable accommodation. A reasonable accommodation, therefore, must be one that allows the individual to work. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit held that “a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation.” Id. at *8. The court distinguished “medical leave spanning multiple months” from intermittent or shorter periods of absence of a couple of days, or even a couple of weeks, finding that the latter was more akin to a part-time or modified work schedule, which would be considered a reasonable accommodation. Instead, it found that long-term medical leave is governed by the FMLA, which protects up to 12 weeks of medical leave. The court rejected the EEOC’s argument on behalf of the employee that long-term leave could constitute a reasonable accommodation where it: 1) was of a definite, time-limited duration; 2) was requested in advance; and 3) was likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions upon return. The court found that the EEOC’s argument equated a reasonable accommodation with an “effective accommodation,” which the Supreme Court has previously rejected. (citing U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391, 400 (2002)). The Seventh Circuit found that, “If, as the EEOC argues, employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA. That’s an untenable interpretation of the term ‘reasonable accommodation.’” Additionally, the court found that Severson failed to meet his burden that his other proposals constituted reasonable accommodations. Accordingly, the court affirmed the district court’s decision granting summary judgment to the defendant-employer.
Employers should note that this is not the governing law in the Eighth Circuit and that the EEOC may still bring a charge based on an employer’s failure to extend leave beyond the FMLA. Even so, it is an example of how one court has distinguished between employers’ obligations under the ADA and the FMLA.
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This news alert is written by Allison C. Pearson, an attorney in the Labor & Employment Practice Group at Friday, Eldredge & Clark, LLP. The information provided is not a substitute for legal advice and should be considered for general guidance only. Please contact one of our attorneys for specific legal advice regarding this matter.