Of late, EEOC guidance has been that a long term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) provided that:
- the leave is of a definite and time limited duration;
- it is requested in advance; and
- it is likely to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his job when he returns.
The EEOC’s position makes the duration of the leave irrelevant as long as it is likely to enable the employee to do his job when he returns. This has been a problem for employers. In a case decided on September 20, 2017, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., disagreed with the EEOC’s logic, significantly altering an employer’s obligations with regard to unpaid medical leaves of absence as reasonable accommodations under the Act.
In Severson, the employee suffered from chronic back pain. He took a twelve (12) week leave of absence under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) during which he received various medical treatments. These treatments failed to produce relief that enabled the employee to return to the performance of the essential functions of his job. He scheduled surgery for the last day of his FMLA leave, August 27, 2013. He also told the employer that recovery from the surgery would take at least two (2) months and requested a medical leave of absence. The employer denied the request and told the employee that he could reapply when he was medically cleared to return to work. The employee was not medically cleared until December 5, 2013. Instead of reapplying, the employee sued the employer alleging that he was discriminated against in violation of the ADA based upon the employer’s denial of his request for an extended medical leave of absence. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the employer, and the appeal to the 7th Circuit followed. The EEOC filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of the employee.
When the EEOC guidance regarding medical leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA was first announced, many employer’s were left shaking their heads, and rightfully so. Such leaves of absence, typically requested at the end of legally required leave under the FMLA seemed to be nothing more than an open ended extension of the FMLA. In Severson, the court agreed, stating that requiring extended medical leave transformed the ADA into a medical leave statute.
The court also strongly criticized the logic underlying the assertion that long term unpaid medical leave is a reasonable accommodation. The court noted that under the ADA, one must first be a “qualified individual” with a disability in order to invoke the Act’s protections. The ADA specifically defines a “qualified individual” with a disability as a person who can perform the essential functions of their job with or without a reasonable accommodation. The court went on to say that, “[S]o defined, the term ‘reasonable accommodation’ is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work.” In short, an accommodation that does not involve the employee working is not a “reasonable accommodation” because it does not enable the employee to work; it enables the employee to avoid work. The court put an exclamation point on this issue by pointing out that, “[A]n employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA,” and that “[A] multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”
The court left open, citing its holding in Byrne v. Avon Products, Inc., the possibility of providing a brief period of leave as a reasonable accommodation in “some circumstances.” But the time period would have to be very limited, so this eliminates the analysis of a months long unpaid medical leave at the expiration of FMLA leave. If an employee can return to his full duties within a short time (a couple of days or even a couple of weeks) that might constitute a part-time or modified work schedule under the ADA definitions of a “reasonable accommodation.” This puts an end to the notion of considering requests for anything other than a leave of very short duration.
The Severson case is a benefit to employers, especially those considering their obligations under the ADA after an employee has exhausted leave under the FMLA. The analysis has become much simpler. Reasonable accommodations enable employees to work; they do not excuse employees from missing further work. If a request for additional unpaid medical leave is made, it must be of very short duration or on a limited intermittent basis. Otherwise, it need not be granted as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. As always, if you have any questions about this case or its impact on a particular situation, please do not hesitate to contact Ancel Glink’s labor and employment group.