In a very employer-friendly decision, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not give employees the right to take an extended leave of absence.
In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the 7th court considered a discrimination claim brought by an employee who was fired when his 12 weeks of FMLA-protected leave for a pre-existing back condition expired and he was still unable to return to work. The employee claimed that his firing violated the Americans with ADA because the “at least two additional months” that he needed to recover from surgery after his FMLA leave ended was a “reasonable accommodation.” The 7th Circuit strongly disagreed, holding that the employee’s proposed accommodation of at least two additional months of leave was not reasonable. According to the Court, the ADA “is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement.”
This ruling is contrary to the position taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that multi-month leaves of absences may be required under the ADA. According the EEOC, leave or extended leave as a job accommodation should be considered when a worker’s doctor is able to estimate a specific endpoint for the leave, the employee asks for the leave ahead of time, and the leave will likely enable the employee to fully perform the job afterward.
In light of the decision in Severson, employers (especially those in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) can feel more comfortable refusing requests for multi-month and indefinite leave requests under the ADA. And while the language in Severson should apply to shorter leaves as well, its holding is limited to extended leaves, so employers still need to consider whether an employee’s request for a shorter leave (either after the expiration of an FMLA leave or if the employee did not qualify under the FMLA) would be a reasonable accommodation.