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Seventh Circuit Rules Long Term Leave is Not a Reasonable Accommodation

By Mark W. Weisman

It appears to be a common scenario: An employee becomes ill, exhausts his or her Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provided leave, and then requests more leave as a “reasonable accommodation.” Must an employer grant additional leave? On September 20, in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals answered that it does not. 

In this case, the plaintiff employee suffered back problems and exhausted his FMLA leave. He subsequently requested two additional months of leave beyond his FMLA leave allotment to undergo surgery. The employer declined the request, and told the employee that his employment would end when his FMLA leave expired. However, the employer made clear the employee was free to reapply for employment when he was cleared by a physician to return to work. The employee sued the employer pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), claiming the employer did not reasonably accommodate his disability when it failed to grant him an additional leave beyond that provided by the FMLA. 

When rendering its decision, the court observed that the ADA is an anti-discrimination law, not a medical leave entitlement, and that a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA is limited to measures that will allow an employee to work. An employee needing “long-term medical leave” cannot work and is therefore not a “qualified individual with a disability” under the ADA. Stated another way, because the employee here could not work, he was not a “qualified individual with a disability,” and was thus not subject to the ADA’s protections. Moreover, extended leave is not a reasonable accommodation because it does not give the employee the means to work, but rather excuses his not working. However, the court emphasized that its decision applied to long-term absences and that additional time off beyond that required by the FMLA for intermittent or short-term leave (no more than a couple of days or a couple of weeks) might be considered a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances. 

This decision gives employers with employees who request long-term medical leaves some measure of comfort. Yet the Seventh Circuit’s ruling is likely not the final say on the matter, and could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Employers that are considering taking employment action against employees on long-term leave would do well to consult able counsel prior to doing so, as running afoul of the ADA or FMLA could prove costly.