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Employer Refusals to Accommodate Long Term ADA Leave Requests Find Growing Support

4.10.2018

The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., leaving in place dismissal of an employee’s Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) lawsuit alleging his employer illegally failed to accommodate a request for a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired. As a result, in the Seventh Circuit, the law strongly supports an employer’s refusal to accommodate multi-month requests for medical leave under the ADA in appropriate circumstances. This may signal a shift from the traditionally employee-friendly interpretation of entitlement to extended leave under the ADA¹. The Seventh Circuit decision is consistent with the Tenth² (in an opinion authored by now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch) and Eleventh³ Circuits, and its decision rejected the EEOC’s position that long-term medical leave is a reasonable accommodation when it is “(1) of a definite, time-limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns.”4

The Seventh Circuit ruled“[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”5 The plaintiff in Severson took 12 weeks of FMLA leave to treat a back condition. Before his FMLA leave ended, he requested an additional two to three months of leave to undergo back surgery related to the same condition. His employer denied his request, and he was terminated. The Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the claims because the ADA limits reasonable accommodations to “measures that will enable an employee to work,” and medical leave results in the employee not working at all.6

The Supreme Court’s decision to not review the Seventh Circuit opinion may embolden other circuits to follow suit. While this case may provide comfort to employers who decide to be more restrictive in granting medical leave requests than they have been in recent years, it does not mean that any medical leave will not be considered a reasonable accommodation. Short-term or intermittent medical leave continues to be a reasonable accommodation that rarely results in an undue burden to the employer. If employers outside of the Seventh, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits receive a request from employees for months-long medical leave under the ADA, they should continue to conduct an undue burden analysis in deciding whether the accommodation is reasonable and discuss with the employee whether there are alternative accommodations that will enable the employee to perform some work. However, going forward, employers may find growing support for the position that months-long leave requests under the ADA do not constitute reasonable accommodations.

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1See, e.g. Cleveland v. Federal Express Corp., 2003 U.S. App. LEXIS 24786 (6th Cir. 2003) (unpublished) (holding that there is no “bright-line rule defining a maximum duration of leave that can constitute a reasonable accommodation” and, therefore, the plaintiff’s requested six-month leave could be a reasonable accommodation for her lupus); Rascon v. U.S. W. Communs., 143 F.3d 1324, 1335 (10th Cir. 1998) (concluding that employee’s requested accommodation of four months of leave for medical treatment was a reasonable accommodation).
2Hwang v. Kansas State University, 753 F.3d 1159 (10th Cir. 2014)(holding that employer is not required to extend plaintiff’s leave of absence beyond the six month’s provided by the employer’s leave policies).
3Billups v. Emerald Coast Utils. Auth., No. 17-10391, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 21199, at *1 (11th Cir. Oct. 26, 2017).
4Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F.3d 476, 482 (7th Cir. 2017); see also 29 C.F.R. § 825.702(b)( “the ADA allows an indeterminate amount of leave, barring undue hardship, as a reasonable accommodation.”); EEOC Enforcement Guidance on Reasonable Accommodation and Undue Hardship, No. 915.002 (10/17/02) at Question 16 (“Permitting the use of accrued paid leave, or unpaid leave, is a form of reasonable accommodation”).
5Severson, 872 F.3d at 479.
6Id. at 479.
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