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Seventh Circuit ruling on additional leave offers important employer guidance
By Amy Blaisdell, Jill Luft, Audrie Howard on November 10, 2017 at 10:52 AM

"ADA, Americans with Disabilities Act" written on a piece of paper with a pencil and stethoscope on top.A recent Seventh Circuit case held that additional leave beyond what is otherwise required by leave entitlement laws is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This holding provides important guidance for employers. Continue reading for the details of this case and our recommended best practices in light of its holding.

On Sept. 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals determined that additional leave beyond what was provided by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Severson v Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017). In this case, Severson took 12 weeks of FMLA leave for serious back pain and problems. On the last day of his FMLA leave, Severson had back surgery. He informed Heartland Woodcraft that he would need to remain off work for another two to three months after the surgery before he could return to work. Heartland Woodcraft denied his request for additional leave and terminated Severson’s employment, inviting him to reapply when he was cleared to return to work.

Severson did not reapply for employment, but rather sued Heartland Woodcraft alleging discrimination in violation of the ADA when the company failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, specifically a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment, and Severson appealed. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the employer stating, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement,” noting that the definition of “reasonable accommodation” is “expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work.” The court reasoned that an employee such as Severson who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a qualified individual with a disability. The Seventh Circuit specifically held that “a multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA” and providing such a leave effectively transforms the ADA into “an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”

This is an important ruling for employers in that it provides guidance in the often very uncertain or “gray” area as to how much additional leave beyond other leave entitlements, if any, would qualify as reasonable accommodation under the ADA. However, employers should be cautious in applying Severson without flexibility. The EEOC has specifically stated, and other federal Courts of Appeal have held, that extending a leave of absence for a definite amount of time is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Furthermore, the Seventh Circuit in Severson noted that short term leaves and intermittent leaves may be analogous to part-time or modified work schedules, which are reasonable accommodations identified by the ADA.

Employers should be advised that implementing a rule or practice of denying requests for additional leave outright will almost certainly result in discrimination claims and possibly EEOC scrutiny. Accordingly, the best practice following an employee’s request for additional leave as an accommodation would be to evaluate the length of the requested leave time, likelihood of a full release to return to work at the end of the requested leave, and whether granting the extended leave would create an undue hardship on the employer. Employers should also be cautious of state-based leave entitlement laws and accommodation requirements.

For more information, or if you have questions about how the Severson case could affect your business’s leave and accommodation practices, please contact any of the attorneys in our Employment & Labor group.

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