Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Court Leaves Door Open for Leave of Absence as Reasonable Accommodation Under ADA

Rarely is a court crystal clear on a rule of law. This is never so true as when it applies to employment law, as employment relationships apparently offer an infinite number of ways to go wrong. So, employers were grateful last year when the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found in the case of Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., that an employee who requires a lengthy medical leave of absence is not a qualified individual under the ADA. It seemed like that was something to take to the bank.

Not for long. Last week, a federal district court judge opened that door for a lengthy leave as an ADA accommodation just a little bit. In EEOC v. Midwest Gaming and Entertainment, LLC, the gaming company’s employee had already received a six month medical leave of absence, when in January 2016 he requested a two month extension to undergo additional cancer therapy. Determining that the request was not a reasonable accommodation, the company discharged the employee. The employee filed a claim under the ADA with the EEOC; who in turn, filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Illinois.

The defendant company sought judgment in its favor, relying on the Severson holding that the requested medical leave (a total of eight months with the extension) was too lengthy, thereby rendering the employee not a qualified individual under the ADA. The court, however, disagreed that the Severson court drew such a bright line. Rather, it found that whether an employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, including a medical leave, requires a case by case analysis of the particular facts of the situation. No crystal clear rule applies.

Employers should not be too discouraged. Strong support by the courts exists that lengthy leaves of absence are not reasonable accommodations. Employers, though, cannot just rely on the length of the requested leave to reach their conclusion of reasonableness. Employers should still analyze every request of a leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA on its particular facts, including well documented reasons of undue burden or disruption to operations should the employer deny the request.