Seventh Circuit’s Latest ADA Case is a Shocker

By Sonal Shah, JD, Senior Employment Law Counsel
Published October 10, 2017

For years, the Management Association has been advising members that they must consider providing extended medical leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This was consistent with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) guidance and decisions by several courts. However, for the first time, the Seventh Circuit (which has jurisdiction over cases in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) opined on the issue and, in a shock to most, completely rejected the EEOC’s position. See Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (7th Cir., September 20, 2017).

Extended medical leaveIn Severson, the plaintiff had serious back issues for which he took Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. Approximately two weeks before his FMLA leave was set to expire, he informed the company that his condition had not improved and that he would need back surgery, necessitating two to three months of additional leave. The company rejected the plaintiff’s request for additional leave, but invited him to reapply with the company when he was medically cleared to work. About three months later, the plaintiff was cleared to return to work. However, rather than contacting the company about returning to work, he sued, claiming he was subjected to disability discrimination. Specifically, he alleged that the company should have accommodated him by providing two to three months of additional leave beyond his FMLA entitlement.

Disagreeing with the EEOC’s oft-stated and firmly held position, the Seventh Circuit held that the “ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Court explained that a reasonable accommodation under the ADA is for the express purpose of enabling an employee to work, and an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work. “Simply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” Thus, the Court held that an extended, multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation.

Importantly, the Court’s decision does not completely preclude leave as a reasonable accommodation. As the Seventh Circuit noted, a multi-month leave of absence is different from a leave of absence that is “intermittent,” “a couple of days” or “even a couple of weeks.” According to the Court, the latter are similar to a part-time or modified work schedule, two of the specific examples listed in the text of the ADA.

While this case is great news for employers, we suggest you still proceed with caution in this area. It is clear the EEOC disagrees with the position taken by the Court, and we do not expect the EEOC to back down from that position. If an employee’s need for leave is of a definite, limited time duration, will not cause an undue hardship on the employer, and the employee will likely be able to perform his/her essential duties upon return from leave, we would consider it best practice to provide the requested leave.  Otherwise, you may have the EEOC after you, which means even if you ultimately would win in a lawsuit, you may have to spend a lot of time, money and effort to get there.

Members with questions about the ADA, including requests for accommodations such as medical leave, should contact our HR Hotline at hotline@hrsource.org or call us at 800-448-4584.

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