How long is too long? Seventh Circuit sheds light on leave as reasonable accommodation

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On Sept. 20, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued an opinion addressing the most difficult question employers encounter when faced with a request for leave as an accommodation for a disability: exactly how long is too long?

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of disability against an employee who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the job.

As most employers know, in some cases, a leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation; however, the EEOC views leave as an accommodation of last resort because the goal is to keep qualified disabled employees on the job.

In 2016, the EEOC issued guidance positing that employers are required to provide several months of leave as an accommodation unless doing so would create an undue hardship on business operations. The lack of clarity surrounding extended leaves of absence under the ADA has plagued employers, but those in the Seventh Circuit now have a clearer answer to the question at hand.

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (Sept. 20, 2017), an employee worked a physically demanding job and, after experiencing serious back pain, he took 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave Act leave. On the last day of his FMLA leave, the employee underwent back surgery and requested an additional three months off work as an accommodation under the ADA. His employer denied the request and terminated his employment, prompting the employee to file suit under the ADA.

In ruling on the employee’s claim, the Seventh Circuit noted that the ADA is “an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement,” and held that long-term medical leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The court explained that the term “reasonable accommodation” is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work, and that “[a]n employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work” such that “[a] multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

For those in the Seventh Circuit, which encompasses Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, this opinion sheds light on what has been a gray and frustrating issue for employers. For employers elsewhere, the Seventh Circuit’s holding is promising but does not bind courts in other federal circuits and, notably, in the last three months of its fiscal year, the EEOC sued numerous employers over failing to provide leave as an accommodation – so leave accommodation is a hot issue for the EEOC.

Employers also must consider state leave laws that may provide employees with greater rights. Employers should proactively stay up to date this evolving area of the law, so as to not to find themselves in the snares of the EEOC or other federal, state or local agency that enforces anti-discrimination laws.

This article originally appeared on the Baker Donelson website. The information in this legal alert is for educational purposes only and should not be taken as specific legal advice.

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