ADA Does Not Require Employers to Accommodate with Extended Leave

Sara Geenen

In late September the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require an employer to consider or permit an extended medical leave because such a leave is not a “reasonable accommodation.”

The ADA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” A “qualified individual” is “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” However, what constitutes a “reasonable accommodation” is not always clear and is dependent on the employee’s essential functions.

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, the Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s claim that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is (1) of a definite, time-limited duration, regardless of the length of the duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns.

The Court reached its conclusion because “[n]ot working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions,” an extended leave of absence does not give an individual the means to work, but merely excuses the fact that he or she is not working, and that, therefore, the person on the extended leave is not “qualified” because he or she cannot perform the essential functions.

The Court reiterated that the “[i]nability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.” And that, although a brief period of leave to deal with a medical condition could be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances, requiring employers to permit extended leaves beyond a couple of days or even a couple of weeks does not permit an employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job. The result of requiring employers to permit disabled employees to take extended, open-ended leave even after they’ve exhausted their FMLA entitlement essentially forces employers to extend employees’ FMLA entitlement beyond what is required by law, and therefore cannot be “reasonable.”

Many observers found this decision surprising in light of existing legal standards. While this decision reaffirms an employer’s obligation to be flexible in developing “reasonable accommodations,” it is a blow to disabled workers who need just a little more time beyond the standard FMLA protection in order to be able to get back on their feet and perform the essential functions of their job.

If you have further questions about FMLA or disability discrimination law, contact The Previant Law Firm at (414) 240-1185.