By James O'Connor

Historically, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) has taken the position that long-term medical leave should qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) when the leave is: (1) of a definite, time-limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns.  But, on September 20, 2017, in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the EEOC’s position. 

In Severson, the employee took a 12-week medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).  On the last day of his leave, the employee underwent back surgery, which required an additional three months off work.  The employee asked his employer to continue his medical leave.  Because the employee had exhausted his FMLA entitlement, the employer denied his request and terminated his employment.  The employer invited the employee to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.  

Three months later, the employee was cleared to resume work.  But instead of reapplying, he sued his employer claiming that it had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation: namely, a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired. After the District Court granted summary judgment to the employer, the employee appealed. 

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision finding that the term “reasonable accommodation” is limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work.  An employee who needs long-term medical leave, however, cannot work and, therefore, is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.  And because the ADA only forbids discrimination against “qualified individuals,” a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation.[1] 

The Seventh Circuit further noted that under the EEOC’s historic position, the duration of leave is irrelevant as long as the leave is likely to enable the employee to do his or job when he returns.  That stance, the Court explained, falsely equates the term “reasonable accommodation” with “effective accommodation.”  The United States Supreme Court, in U.S. Airways, Inc. v. Barnett, 535 U.S. 391, 400 (2002), expressly rejected this interpretation: 

[I]n ordinary English the word “reasonable” does not mean “effective.”  It is the word “accommodation,” not the word “reasonable,” that conveys the need for effectiveness.  An ineffective “modification” or “adjustment” will not accommodate a disabled individual’s limitations....  Yet a demand for an effective accommodation could prove unreasonable.... 

The Seventh Circuit reasoned that if the EEOC’s argument was accepted, the ADA would be “transformed into a medical-leave statute: in effect, an open-ended extension of the FLMA,” which the court held would be an “untenable interpretation” of the term reasonable accommodation. 

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has similarly found that extended leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  Specifically, the Sixth Circuit, in Boileau v. Capital Bank Financial Corp., 646 Fed. Appx. 436 (6th Cir. 2016), held that the employee was not entitled to a multi-month leave as a reasonable accommodation.  In Boileau, the Sixth Circuit determined that the employee was not a “qualified individual” under the ADA because she could not meet the attendance requirement of the employer. 

In light of these decisions, employers should keep in mind that the purpose behind a reasonable accommodation is to permit a disabled employee to perform his job.  If an employee’s proposed accommodation does not make it possible for him to do so, that is, they require long-term medical leave, then the employee is not a “qualified individual.” And, in that case, such a request for extended leave is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

[1]The Seventh Circuit made a distinction for intermittent time off or a short leave of absence, holding that a couple of days or a couple of weeks off may be an appropriate accommodation in some circumstances.

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