Seventh Circuit Decides Extended Leave of Absence is Not a Reasonable Accommodation under ADA

In a decision issued on September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit held in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir. 2017) that an employee’s request for a “multi-month leave of absence” following the exhaustion of Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave was not a reasonable accommodation that the employer was required to provide by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Raymond Severson, a seven-year employee at Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. suffered an injury at home that aggravated preexisting back pain and was granted leave under the FMLA to recover from his injury. Over the course of the next twelve weeks of FMLA leave he was diagnosed with multiple herniated and bulging discs in his lumbar spine, which required surgery.

Severson’s FMLA period expired on the same date as his back surgery, which Severson was told would require at least two months of recovery time. He requested that Heartland extend his leave of absence; however, the day before his surgery, Heartland called Severson to tell him that his employment would end when his FMLA period expired on the following day. Heartland invited him to reapply for a job after receiving medical clearance to return to work. Severson was cleared to return to work about three months later, but rather than reapply for a position, he sued Heartland under the ADA for refusing to extend his leave for three months beyond the FMLA period.

Agreeing with the lower court’s ruling, the Seventh Circuit held in favor of Heartland for two significant reasons. First, the court made clear that the ADA should be firmly recognized “as an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” If multi-month leaves were reasonable ADA accommodations, “the ADA [would be] transformed into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA,” according to the court. Second, the court emphasized that ADA accommodations were intended to enable an individual with a disability to work, but “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” The court stated, however, that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence for a couple of days or weeks may, in some circumstances, be considered a reasonable accommodation.

This case is significant because the court clearly takes the position that employers are not required to grant long-term leaves of absences of two to three months as accommodations under the ADA. Employers may, however, be required to grant shorter leaves of absence of a couple of days or weeks depending on the situation. Of course, when considering a leave request, school districts must also take into account any applicable collective bargaining agreements or school board policies that may entitle employees to extended leaves of absence.

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