Determining how long an employer must hold a position for an absent worker is a question that vexes Human resources Directors and Operations management. The Seventh Circuit recently ruled, in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., that an employee’s request for extended leave after having exhausted his Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) entitlement is not a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). This ruling is at odds with other federal rulings and many state court decisions requiring an employer to show that it would suffer an undue hardship by holding open the possibility of return from an unpaid leave (for an employee usually on COBRA).
In Severson, the plaintiff employee suffered from back pain that became increasingly worse, causing him to take a leave of absence under the FMLA. On the last day of his FMLA covered leave, the employee had surgery. As such, he could not return to work for several months thereafter. Because the employee had exhausted FMLA leave, the employer terminated the employment (but invited him to reapply for a position once he had recovered and was medically cleared to work). The employee filed suit under the ADA, arguing that the employer failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation – specifically extended leave.
The Court found in favor of the employer, noting that “[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Court noted that permitting intermittent time off or a short leave of absence “may, in appropriate circumstances” act as a reasonable accommodation. However, it distinguished those situations from a lengthy month leave, during the employee is not available to perform the essential functions of his/her job. Ultimately, the Court found that if extended leave were a reasonable accommodation, “the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute – in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA. That’s an untenable interpretation of the term ‘reasonable accommodation.’”
Please keep in mind that the ruling is only binding upon courts within the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin) interpreting the ADA. Employers throughout the country should consider that in many jurisdictions a leave of several months may still be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA and should consult counsel accordingly.