The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to review Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., which leaves standing a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision concerning the availability of extended leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Background. The plaintiff took Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) leave due to a back injury that required surgery. After exhausting his FMLA leave, the plaintiff requested that his employer provide several months of additional leave to allow him to recuperate and return to work. The employer rejected this request and terminated the plaintiff, but encouraged him to reapply for employment when he recovered. In response, the employee sued the employer in federal court, claiming the employer had failed to provide “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA by denying his request for additional leave.
The district court reviewing the matter ruled in favor of the employer and dismissed the plaintiff’s claims. In turn, the plaintiff appealed to the Seventh Circuit.
Seventh Circuit. In reviewing the matter, the Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s claims. In particular, the Seventh Circuit concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA leave that extend for more than a brief period of time are never required under the ADA.
The Seventh Circuit noted that the ADA defines a reasonable accommodation as an accommodation that allows an “otherwise qualified” disabled employee to perform the essential functions of the employment position. As a result, if the proposed accommodation does not allow the employee to perform his job, then the employee is not a “qualified” as defined under the ADA. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit concluded that “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” Therefore, employees who are unable to perform their duties for extended periods of time are not “qualified” as defined by the ADA.
Interestingly, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) had filed an amicus brief in the matter that supported the plaintiff’s claims. Specifically, EEOC argued that a long-term leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is: (i) of a definite, time-limited duration; (ii) requested in advance; and (iii) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns.
The Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s interpretation of the ADA, finding that if “employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA would be transformed into a medical leave statute-in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”
Employer Takeaway. The Severson holding means that employers in the Seventh Circuit are not obligated to provide long-term additional leave to employees who exhaust FMLA leave because doing so would convert the ADA into a medical leave statute. Important to note, however, is that the Seventh Circuit’s holding in Severson stands in opposition to four other federal appellate courts and the EEOC, so the U.S. Supreme Court may revisit this issue at some time in the future.