In McAllister v. Innovation Ventures, LLC, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appellate court that governs Illinois) agreed that an employee’s ADA claim could not survive summary judgment where she failed to present evidence sufficient to show that she was a qualified individual entitled to protection under the ADA. 

In June 2016, the employee, a machine operator, was involved in a non-work-related automobile accident, in which she suffered serious injuries to her head and back. Unable to work, she sought and received short-term disability benefits and FMLA leave, with her physician opining that she was “unable to perform…any and all” job functions and estimating a return-to-work date in September. In late August, as her initial return-to-work date approached, the employee’s medical provider informed the employer that she did not “feel at this time [employee] is quite ready to go back to work.” By early October, the employee’s physician continued to report that the employee could not return to work and that she required a neuropsychological evaluation, which he estimated to take at least six more weeks. In late October, having expended all available FMLA leave, the employer granted the employee’s request for additional leave due to the pending neuropsychological evaluation, with the additional leave set to expire in mid-November. On the date the additional leave expired, the employee’s physician reported that the employee would be unable to return to work until February 2017. The employer declined to extend any further leave and terminated the employee in December 2016. The employee filed suit, alleging that the employer failed to accommodate her under the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the employee’s contention that she could show she was able to perform the essential functions of her position with or without accommodation and, thus, found that the employee did not qualify for ADA protection. In particular, the court noted that the employee’s assertions that she could work in any capacity directly contradicted her doctors’ orders and found that “[i]t would defy common sense to demand that [the employer] disregard these well-documented medical opinions and allow its employees…to prematurely return to work, thereby jeopardizing their safety.” The court continued, “even if [the employer] bent over backwards to accommodate her, there were no accommodations—short of paying her to not work—that could have mitigated [her] sweeping limitations.” Likewise, the court rejected the employee’s assertion that it would have been reasonable for the employer to grant her additional leave, when it is well settled that the inability to work for an extended period of time (this employee would have required an additional four months on top of the two and a half months already taken) removes an employee from the class protected by the ADA.

This case reiterates that the purpose of the ADA is to provide protections to qualified individuals, i.e., those that are able to perform the essential functions of their jobs with or without accommodation. Employers are entitled to rely on medical opinions regarding an individual’s ability, or lack of ability, to work. Further, employers are not required to grant extended leaves of absences to individuals who are unable to work.

The intersection of ADA and leaves of absences is fraught with intricacies. Contact Tony Loizzi with your medical leave inquiries.