On April 2, 2018, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals that rejected a disabled employee’s claim that, as an accommodation for his disability, he was entitled under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“the ADA”) to leave beyond the maximum 12 weeks authorized by the Family and Medical Leave Act (“the FMLA”).
The Seventh Circuit’s Decision
Because of back pain, Raymond Severson took the maximum 12 weeks of leave permitted by the FMLA. On the last day of his leave he underwent back surgery, which required him to remain out of work for another two to three months. His employer rejected his request to extend his leave for an additional three months and terminated his employment, although did invite him to reapply when he was medically cleared to return to work. Instead of reapplying, Severson brought suit under the ADA, alleging that the employer failed to provide a reasonable accommodation for his disability by denying his request for extended leave. The district court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed.
The Seventh Circuit’s analysis of the issue was straightforward. “A ‘reasonable accommodation’ is one that allows the disabled employee to ‘perform the essential functions of the employment position.’” [29 U.S.C.] § 12111(8). If the proposed accommodation does not make it possible for the employee to perform his job, then the employee is not a ‘qualified individual’ as that term is defined in the ADA.” An extended leave is not a reasonable accommodation because it does not give the employee the means to perform the essential functions of the job. Rather, it excuses his inability to work. The Court distinguished requests for extended periods of leave from requests for intermittent leave of a few days or even a few weeks in situations where the employee is able to perform the essential functions of the job except for brief periods due to, for example, extreme pain. The Court analogized an accommodation of intermittent leave to the accommodation of a modified work schedule, an accommodation expressly noted in the ADA. The Court rejected the position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“the EEOC”) that a leave of any duration could constitute a reasonable accommodation if it enabled the employee to perform the essential functions of the job upon returning to work. The Court found this interpretation of “reasonable accommodation” to be untenable because under it “the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”
Although the Supreme Court’s decision not to take up the Severson case is not precedential, it leaves in place a well-reasoned decision that employers can point to as support for declining accommodation requests for extended leaves of absence. Nevertheless, employers should keep in mind the EEOC’s position on extended leave as a reasonable accommodation and the potential application of state laws that may yield a different result. Accordingly, employers should proceed with care and consult with counsel when presented with such requests.
If you have any questions regarding this blog or reasonable accommodation issues in general, feel free to contact any of the attorneys in the Gibbons Employment & Labor Law Department.