Last month our very own Seventh Circuit struck down the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) long standing position that medical leave is a reasonable accommodation when the leave is (1) of a definite, time-limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions upon return. The Seventh Circuit found the EEOC’s position unpersuasive and stated that certain medical leave improperly transforms the American’s With Disabilities Act (ADA) into "an open-ended extension” of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The case in question is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754, 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir., Sept. 20, 2017). In Severson, the court found that “[a] multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” Severson took twelve weeks of FMLA leave due to serious back pain. While out on FMLA Severson did not recover as he had hoped and scheduled back surgery on the last day of his FMLA leave. As a result, he requested an additional three months of leave. It is not unreasonable to assume his employer was not pleased that Severson waited until the last day of his FMLA to have his back surgery. Stated otherwise, he exhausted all twelve (12) weeks of FMLA and then scheduled his back surgery on the last day hoping to get another twelve 12 weeks of extended leave. Heartland denied Severson’s request to continue his medical leave beyond the FMLA entitlement, terminated his employment, and invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.
The EEOC sued Severson’s former employer, alleging disability discrimination. The EEOC reiterated its position that any fixed period of post-FMLA leave can be a required reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and that employers have the burden of demonstrating that the additional leave request poses an undue hardship. As indicated in the initial paragraph, not only did the court rule against the administrative position taken by the EEOC but also the court also held that employers do not have to prove undue hardship to justify denying the additional leave request. The Seventh Circuit noted that “[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The court also stated that “an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA” and specifically stated that “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” Thus, if the requested accommodation does not allow the employee to work, the ADA does not provide continued protection.
The court also concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA that extend for more than a brief period of time (a couple of days or weeks) are never required under the ADA. Unfortunately the court never reached the question of whether the additional leave request constituted an undue hardship. This decision also does not address leave requirements for employees not eligible for FMLA.
It is important that employers look at these situations when they arise on a case-by-case basis as the same treatment is not a “cure-all” for all situations. In fact, even after the EEOC got crushed in this decision, it filed another suit in Illinois alleging an employer violated the ADA by refusing an employee extra leave to treat an illness. Employers should be sure to have well-crafted leave policies in place and are communicated to their employees.