Extended Leave Is Not Reasonable Accommodation, 7th Circuit Rules

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

October 27, 2017

A long-term medical leave of absence after Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave has been exhausted cannot be a reasonable accommodation, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in a pair of pro-employer decisions. In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the appellate court found that a medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform essential job functions, as required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Writing for the court, Circuit Judge Diane Sykes said, "If employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute - in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA." Judge Sykes called that an untenable interpretation of the "reasonable accommodation" term. The court acknowledged that a short leave of absence for a few days or a couple of weeks may be reasonable in some circumstances.

Speaking at the Association of Corporate Counsel's annual meeting in Washington, DC, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic applauded the ruling in saying, "I don't think the ADA is meant to be a leave law."

In Golden v. Indianapolis Housing Agency, the 7th Circuit reached a similar result in finding that an employer did not need to provide additional leave to an employee whose leave time had expired and remained unable to perform the essential job functions.

However, a concurring judge wrote that a rule declaring that a long-term leave of absence can never be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA is contrary to the language of the Act. She would have preferred a rule requiring a factual determination of whether the leave would be an "undue hardship" for the employer, but said the court was bound by the Severson ruling.

Both cases involved employees who took valid leave under the FMLA and sought additional leave as their FMLA leave was set to expire because they remained unable to return to work.