Court Says Long Term Leave is Not a Reasonable Accommodation

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has just issued a ruling on a disability accommodation case that could be the turning point in how employers accommodate workers requiring long term disability leaves.

Raymond Severson worked several years in a physically challenging job for Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., of West Bend, Wisconsin. In June 2013, Severson took a 12-week leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA), for a long-standing back problem.  At the very end of his leave, Severson had surgery on his back, which would require that he be off work for another two to three months.

Severson asked Heartland to continue his leave of absence but the company declined. Instead, they terminated his employment and invited him to reapply when he had recovered sufficiently to return to work.  Severson opted not to return and instead sued the company under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) for failing to accommodate his need for a continuing leave of absence. The lower court dismissed the claim, prompting Severson to appeal to the U.S .Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Accommodation Applies Only to Actual Work

In an unusually direct and succinct ruling, the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court and decided in favor of the employer, declaring that “the ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” They first reminded us that the ADA only prohibits discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability” and that a “qualified individual” is one who can perform the essential functions of their job with or without accommodation.

They then determined that the obligation to provide reasonable accommodation applies only to workplace adjustments that will allow the employee actually to perform their work.  Someone seeking time off the job obviously cannot work and therefore is not a “qualified individual” for whom accommodation is required.  As such, a long term absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

EEOC is Still Wrong

In issuing this decision, the Seventh Circuit rejected the long-standing position of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) to the effect that a long term leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation if it is:

– of a definite, time-limited duration;

– requested in advance; and

– likely to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job upon return to work.

The Appeals Court concluded that the EEOC’s position is more of “effective accommodation” rather than “reasonable accommodation” and that the two are not identical.

The court did leave open the question of whether a short term absence could fall within the ADA’s definition of a reasonable accommodation.  In fact, they referenced one of their earlier cases recognizing that an absence of a few days or even a few weeks might be viewed in the nature of a part-time or modified work schedule of the type that the ADA identifies as possible accommodations.  However, they deemed the need for a medical leave spanning multiple months as something that “removes a person from the class protected by the ADA” and concluded “Long-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA.”

Minnesota Employers – Read This Before Celebrating

This could be a true game changer but several cautions are in order:

→ At present, this decision only applies to employers in the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana).  A similar decision is on the books for Tenth Circuit employers (covering the western plains states).  Employers in Minnesota (which sits in the Eighth Circuit) therefore cannot count on similar decisions from our federal courts at present.

→ Regardless of where the employer is located, we expect the EEOC to continue pressing their interpretation until either the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the matter or the EEOC changes their stance (which is conceivable in light of the changed composition of the EEOC if and when their new leadership is confirmed).

→ This decision only relates to continuing absences of a few months or more – short term absences, as explained above, might still be considered reasonable accommodations.

→ In all cases and in all federal circuits, the employer should still first engage in the interactive process to determine if there is an accommodation that will permit the employee to remain at work instead of on a leave or whether there are existing vacancies into which the employee can be transferred in order to allow them to stay at work.

Bottom Line

Some experts have labeled this the Holy Grail for employers but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  As explained above, this decision had not been adopted in the Eighth Circuit, so Minnesota employers should not be guided by this decision just yet.

In a delicious bit of irony, however, the EEOC office in Minnesota has for many years applied pro-employee Seventh Circuit precedent to cases arising here because they are considered a regional office that is part of the larger Chicago District.   Let’s see them try to spin this new development where Seventh Circuit precedent now favors employers!

With two federal circuits adopting this position now, and with a hopefully kinder and gentler EEOC, employers throughout Minnesota and the rest of the country have reason for real optimism that we may soon have greater certainty about whether and to what extent long term absences must be accommodated.