CHICAGO — Employers now may consider multiple-month medical leave requests under the Family and Medical Leave Act without analyzing Americans with Disabilities Act requirements after a federal court upheld a company's ADA win, declaring the “ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”
In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last month affirmed a district court ruling that long-term leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The circuit court also ruled that the defendant in the case did not violate the ADA when it didn't provide an employee with a long-term medical leave of absence.
"Of course, as with most decisions, Severson also creates some questions," Allison Sues, an attorney at Smith Amundsen in Chicago, told the Cook County Record. "While the court has clarified that multiple-month leaves are not reasonable accommodations, it also noted that employers may still be required to provide shorter leaves with finite durations under the ADA."
The case does not clearly answer how employers should handle leave requests falling in-between these two extremes, such as a request for a six-week leave, Sues said.
"In addressing requests within this gray zone, employers should engage in the interactive process to determine whether the leave or other accommodation could be provided without imposing an undue hardship on the employer," she said.
The case was brought by seven-year employee Raymond Severson, who in 2006 began a physically demanding job for Heartland Woodcraft in Westbend, Wis., which makes retail display fixtures, according to the Seventh Circuit decision. In June 2013, Severson took 12 weeks of medical leave, as allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, for back pain. He underwent surgery on the last day of his leave, which required that he remain off the job an additional two to three months, according to the decision.
Severson asked Heartland Woodcraft to continue his medical leave, but with all of his FMLA leave exhausted, the company denied his request and fired Severson. The company, however, did invite him to reapply once his doctor cleared him to work, according to the decision. Severson's doctor cleared him about three months later but rather than reapply, he sued Heartland Woodcraft, alleging discrimination for alleged violation of the ADA, claiming the company had not provided him accommodation of a three-month leave of absence beyond his FMLA leave, according to the decision.
Severson lost his case in Milwaukee federal court, in a decision handed down Nov. 12, 2015.
Severson appealed that decision, but it was upheld by the Seventh Circuit on Sept. 20.
"In its Return to Work manual, Heartland retained the option, in its discretion, to give occupationally injured employees temporary duties on an ad hoc basis if such work was available," Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Sykes wrote in the opinion. "These temporary light-duty assignments were infrequent and generally lasted no longer than two days. They were essentially acts of grace. No evidence suggests that Heartland had a policy of crafting light-duty positions for employees injured on the job. If an employer bends over backwards to accommodate a disabled worker, it must not be punished for its generosity.”
The decision was a departure from other decisions by the courts and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Sues said.
"The Seventh Circuit has explicitly departed from the position of other circuits and the EEOC in holding that multiple-month leaves of absences do not constitute reasonable accommodations under the ADA," she said.
The Seventh Circuit had previously held that employers do not need to accommodate requests for multiple-month leaves under the ADA because, if employees are unable to work for such an extended period, they are not qualified individuals under the ADA, Sues said.
"Yet, some district courts within the Seventh Circuit distinguished these decisions and still found that longer leaves may be reasonable accommodations in certain cases, and the EEOC continued to opine that longer leaves may be required under the ADA," Sues said.
The decision, she said, reaffirms and clarifies the Seventh Circuit’s prior decisions, and is binding precedent for district courts within the Seventh Circuit, which includes the states of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.