On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit held that an extension of a medical leave more than a few days beyond the 12 weeks provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), Severson requested and received FMLA leave in connection with a back injury. On August 26, 2017, just as his FMLA leave was being exhausted, Severson notified Heartland that his back condition had not improved and that he was scheduled to undergo surgery, for which the typical recovery time was at least two months. Severson requested an extension of his medical leave to cover his post-surgery recovery period. Heartland rejected the request and terminated his employment, but said he could reapply with the company when he was medically cleared to work. Severson’s doctor cleared him for work on December 5, 2013, following which he sued Heartland, alleging that it unlawfully failed to accommodate his disability.
The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against a qualified individual on the basis of a disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). A qualified individual is one who can perform the essential functions of his or her employment position, with or without reasonable accommodations. § 12111(8).
Severson and Heartland both agreed that Severson’s back condition was a disability that prevented him from performing the essential function of his job. Therefore, liability hinged on whether Heartland should have reasonably accommodated Severson’s condition with, among other things, an extension of his medical leave of absence.
The Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of Heartland. The court reasoned that an extended leave cannot be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA because it does not give the disabled employee the means to work; it only excuses the inability to work. While the court acknowledged that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence could be a reasonable accommodation under some circumstances, it made clear that an employee who cannot work during a multi-month period is not a qualified individual under the ADA. In reaching this conclusion, the court rejected the EEOC’s argument that an extended leave can be a reasonable accommodation if it is definite and limited in duration, requested in advance, and likely to allow the employee to perform the essential function of his job upon return to work.
Notably, not all Circuits follow the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning as it relates to extended periods of leave as a reasonable accommodation. For instance, the First, Third, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits have found that an extension of a medical leave can be a reasonable accommodation so long as it is not indefinite, does not pose an undue hardship on the employer, and ultimately enables the employee to perform the essential duties of his or her position. See e.g. Echevarria v. AstraZeneca Pharm. LP, 856 F.3d 119(1st Cir. 2017); Thompson v. Kessler Inst. for Rehab., Inc., 2017 WL 3784036 (D.N.J. Aug. 31, 2017); Maat v. Cty. Of Ottawa, 657 Fed. Appx. 404 (6th Cir. 2016); Alwood v. Ecolab, Inc. 2016 WL 1451529 (D. Mont. Apr. 12, 2016). Moreover, the EEOC continues to insist that extended leave can be a reasonable accommodation. Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities
Given the lack of uniformity surrounding extensions of a medical leave, the factual nature of such requests, and the EEOC’s insistence that such extensions can be a reasonable accommodation, employers outside of the Seventh Circuit should continue to consider an extension of a medical leave of absence as a possible reasonable accommodation, at least for the time being.