How much leave is a "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act?

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently answered that question in the case of Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017).

Facts

Severson had a physically demanding job fabricating retail display fixtures. Due to severe back pain, he used all of his leave (12 weeks) under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). On the last day of his FMLA leave, he had back surgery and was forced to miss another few months of work.

He asked his Heartland to extend his FMLA leave, but the company denied his request, terminated him, and suggested he reapply when he was able to return to work. After he was cleared to work, instead of reapplying, he filed suit alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). More specifically, he claimed that Heartland discriminated against him in violation of the ADA by not offering a "reasonable accommodation" in the form of a few months of leave after he had exhausted his FMLA leave.

Trial Court Ruling

The trial court granted the employer's motion for summary judgment, and the employee appealed.

Appellate Court's Decision

The Seventh Circuit affirmed. It made clear that the ADA was an anti-discrimination statute and not a medical leave statute. The court specified that the ADA protects "qualified individuals" from discrimination based on disability. A "qualified individual" is a person with a disability who with or without a "reasonable accommodation" can perform the essential functions of the job. The court held, that a "reasonable accommodation" is one that allows the employee to work. Thus, an employee in Severson's position, that needed a long-term leave from work could not work and was therefore not a "qualified individual" under the ADA. The court made clear "A multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA."

The court noted that the ADA suggests what a "reasonable accommodation" may include (access to existing facilities to people with disabilities, modified work schedule, reassignment to a vacant position, modification of equipment used, etc.). The court noted that while the concept of a "reasonable accommodation" is flexible, the definition of a "qualified individual" is not. At a threshold level, a "qualified individual" must be able to perform the essential job functions. Because a multi-month leave does not allow the employee to perform the essential job functions (in fact, it allows the employee to miss work), the Seventh Circuit held it is not a "reasonable accommodation."

The court made it clear that it would not transform the ADA into an "open-ended extension of the FMLA."

The Takeaway

For employers, Severson is good news because it provides clarity. Employers can reasonably assume that if they deny an employee's request for an extended leave (versus a brief period of leave or intermittent leave) of two months, they won't be running afoul of the ADA's "reasonable accommodation" requirement.

The clarity is bad news for employees. Employees now know that they cannot use the ADA as an extension of FMLA leave. But it is worth noting that an employer may still honor an employee's request for extended leave, so employees should consult their human resources departments and see if their employer is willing to work with them despite this recent development in the law.