Banking and Business Monthly – November 2017

SEVENTH CIRCUIT HOLDS ADDITIONAL LEAVE BEYOND FMLA IS NOT A REASONABLE ACCOMMODATION UNDER THE ADA

The Seventh Circuit recently provided important guidance for employers. On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that additional leave beyond what was provided by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was not a reasonable accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). Severson v Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017). Raymond Severson took 12 weeks of FMLA leave to deal with serious back pain. On the last day of his leave, he underwent back surgery, which required that he remain off of work for another two or three months. Severson asked his employer, Heartland, to continue his medical leave despite having exhausted his FMLA entitlement. The company denied his request and terminated his employment, but invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work. About three months later, Severson’s doctor cleared him to resume work, but instead of reapplying for work, Severson sued Heartland alleging ADA discrimination by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation – namely, a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired.

The district court awarded summary judgment to Heartland, and Severson appealed. In affirming the judgment in favor of the employer, the Seventh Circuit held that “[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” As such, a “reasonable accommodation” for purposes of the ADA is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work. An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a “qualified individual” whom the ADA seeks to protect. The Seventh Circuit specifically held that “[a] multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA,” and that providing such a leave effectively would transform the ADA into “an open-ended extension of the FMLA.” The court thought doing so would be an untenable interpretation of the ADA’s “reasonable accommodation” definition.

Severson provides employers guidance when dealing with an employee’s request for additional leave beyond the leave such an employee would otherwise be entitled to receive. However, employers should be cautious in applying Severson unyieldingly as a hard-and-fast rule in always denying requests for any additional leave, as the EEOC and other federal Courts of Appeal have held that extending a leave of absence for a definite amount of time is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The court in Severson also noted that short term leaves and intermittent leaves may be analogous to part-time or modified work schedules, which are reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Accordingly, prudent employers should carefully evaluate an employee’s request for additional leave as an accommodation by considering factors such as the length of the requested leave, the likelihood of the employee obtaining a full release to return to work at the end of the requested leave, and whether granting the request would create an undue hardship on the employer.

 

Steven A. Migala is a partner at Lavelle Law and possess over 20 years of providing excellent representation to banks, businesses and individuals in a variety of matters. He can be contacted at (847) 705-7555 and smigala@lavellelaw.com.