7th Circuit Court of Appeals Clarifies the Limits of Unpaid Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

By Adam Dauksas

September 22, 2017

             On Wednesday, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the federal appellate court that has jurisdiction over Illinois, again made clear that a long-term, multiple month unpaid leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  This decision, rendered in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., is particularly important for school districts and other employers subject to the ADA’s requirements, as employees who have exhausted their available sick, personal and FMLA leave time often try to turn to the ADA as a last resort to keep their jobs despite not being able to perform their essential job functions.

             In Severson, that exact scenario was at issue after Raymond Severson took a 12-week FMLA leave to deal with his own serious back pain.  On the last day of his FMLA leave, he had back surgery, which would require him to remain off of work for another two or three months.  As a result, Severson asked his employer to continue his medical leave as an accommodation under the ADA, but the company denied his request and terminated his employment.  Severson then sued his former employer under the ADA, claiming that the company had discriminated against him by not providing him a reasonable accommodation (i.e. an additional three-month leave of absence following his 12-week FMLA leave). Severson’s arguments were supported by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).

             The Court of Appeals, affirming a lower federal district court’s order and relying on one of its own decisions from 2003, rejected Severson’s ADA claim.  In holding that “[t]he ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement,” the Court focused its analysis on who is a “qualified individual” with a disability entitled to protection under the law.  Since that term is defined as a person who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position,” the court reasoned that an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work (i.e. cannot perform the essential functions of the job) and thus is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.  According to the Court, “[s]imply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.”

             It is important to note as well that in reaching this conclusion, the Court expressly rejected the EEOC’s arguments made in support of Severson’s position.  In particular, the EEOC claimed that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation unless the employer can show that it works an undue hardship on the employer’s operations.  While the court acknowledged that “[i]ntermittent time off or a short leave of absence – say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks – may, in appropriate circumstances,” serve as a reasonable accommodation, it made clear that a medical leave spanning multiple months, like the one Severson was seeking, does not permit an employee to perform the essential functions of their job.

             While the 7th Circuit’s decision in Severson provides further clarification as to when an unpaid leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, the interplay between the ADA and an employee’s sick, personal and FMLA leave is often a challenge for employers to navigate.  Should your school district need assistance in dealing with any of these issues, please do not hesitate to contact Scariano, Himes and Petrarca, Chtd.