The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently held in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 181197*, 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017) that a leave for medical purposes of two months or more is not a reasonable accommodation under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In so doing, however, the Court left open the possibility that shorter or intermittent leaves might be, under appropriate circumstances.
In Severson, the plaintiff took the full 12-week allotment of medical leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) due to back pain. During his leave, he scheduled back surgery for day his FMLA leave expired. Severson told the employer that he would not be able to work for two-to-three months after the surgery and requested non-FMLA medical leave for the recovery time. The employer denied the request, given that Severson would be unable to perform any part of his job for several months.
The court held that the employer’s decision did not violate the ADA. The ADA, the court explained, is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement. Id. at *3. According to the court, the ADA is designed to prevent discrimination against a “qualified” individual, defined as a person who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.” Id. Thus, protection under the ADA is “expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work. An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.” Id. (citing Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003)). Based on these considerations, the court determined that Severson was not a qualified individual under the ADA because the requested accommodation—a leave of two-to-three months—would not allow him to perform the essential duties of his job and thus was not reasonable.
Severson provides definitive guidance to employers in the Seventh Circuit with respect to employee requests for medical leave for two or more months, but only if the leave is not mandated by a medical leave statute like the federal FMLA or any state law counterparts. While Severson also suggests that even a leave of more than a couple of weeks may not be a reasonable accommodation, employers should still proceed with caution in responding to requests for leave of less than two months because the reasonableness of the leave will turn on the particular circumstances of each request. Employers also should keep in mind that Severson does not permit employers to deny extended leave mandated by another statute. In such cases, of course, employers must provide the leave whether or not it would be considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
For additional guidance or questions related to employers’ responsibilities under the ADA, contact Meg Vergeront at (608) 256-0226.