Employment LawScene Alert: Multi-Month Need for Leave Disqualifies Employee from ADA Protections

Last week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in which it stated that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) does not require employers to give employees more leave after their Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allotment runs out. In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft Inc., the employee had a back condition for which he took twelve weeks of FMLA leave. At the end of his FMLA leave, he requested an additional two or three months of leave to recover from back surgery. The employer denied his request and terminated his employment, telling him that he could reapply once healthy. Instead, the employee filed suit, claiming that the company had violated the ADA by refusing to grant him a leave of absence and by failing to transfer him to a vacant job or a light duty position.

The ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against employees who are “qualified individuals,” meaning that they can perform the essential functions of their jobs with or without accommodation. The Seventh Circuit upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment to the employer, finding that the employee was not a “qualified individual” with a disability under the ADA because he could not work, as shown by his need for long-term medical leave. Although there is no bright-line rule for what is considered a disqualifying long-term leave, the Court noted that, while a few days or even a few weeks of non-FMLA time would be acceptable, a period of multiple months is too long as leave does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job. Although the EEOC argued in an amicus brief that a long-term leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation if it is definite, requested in advance, and would allow the worker to return at the end of the leave, the Court rejected this argument stating that such a policy would make the ADA into a medical leave entitlement instead of an anti-discrimination law that requires reasonable accommodations. The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s other reasonable accommodation arguments, as he presented no evidence that there were any vacant positions at the time of his termination or that the company provided light duty to employees in any situation.

Although employers should carefully consider their obligations to employees under both the ADA and the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act, determine whether a requested accommodation is reasonable on a case-by-case basis, and engage in the interactive process with employees, this decision will be helpful in guiding employers that are evaluating employees’ requests for extended leave.

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