The Seventh Circuit recently held in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. that a long-term leave of absence, particularly one extending beyond the twelve weeks of leave guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), does not warrant protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).
Raymond Severson was terminated from his job as a fabricator at Heartland after he exhausted his 12-week medical leave under the FMLA and requested to remain off work for several additional months to recover from back surgery. Severson sued Heartland under the ADA, arguing Heartland failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation—namely, a three-month leave of absence following the expiration of his FMLA leave.
The Seventh Circuit rejected Severson’s argument and held “a multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” In reaching this conclusion, the Court stated that employees who are unable to work for extended periods of time cannot perform the essential functions of their positions. The Court reasoned such employees are not “qualified individuals” under the ADA and thus fall outside of the ADA’s protection.
In rejecting Severson’s claim that his extended leave should be protected as a reasonable accommodation, the Court explained long-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA. In contrast, the Court stated the ADA is not a leave-entitlement statute and “applies only to those who can do the job”. In so holding, the Court reinforced its earlier decision in Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc. that “[n]ot working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions.” The Court, however, did leave open the possibility that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence of a few days or weeks could be a reasonable accommodation in “appropriate circumstances”, but clearly stated that the inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class of individuals protected by the ADA.
This decision departs from the EEOC’s May 2016 guidance that long-term medical leave should qualify as a reasonable accommodation where the leave is definite and time-limited, requested in advance, and likely to enable the employee to perform the job upon his or her return.
Other federal appellate courts addressing the question of leave have not drawn the bright line created in Severson. For example, earlier this year, the First Circuit in Echevarria v. Astrazeneca Pharmaceutical LP held a leave of absence or a leave extension can constitute a reasonable accommodation under the ADA “in some circumstances”, although in that case ultimately concluded the plaintiff could not show her request for twelve additional months of leave was facially reasonable. Similarly, in 2016, the Sixth Circuit recognized in Stallings v. Detroit Public Schools that “temporary leave may indeed be a reasonable accommodation in the ‘appropriate circumstances.'” The Fifth and Ninth Circuits have also concluded that taking leave that is limited in duration may be a reasonable accommodation to enable an employee to perform the essential functions of a job, while also noting that leave without a specified return date is not.
Finally, the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits recognize a leave of absence can constitute a reasonable accommodation under the appropriate circumstances. In 2014, then-Tenth Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch authored an opinion holding that “[w]hat separates an absence that enables an employee to discharge the essential duties of her job…from an absence that renders the employee unable to discharge those essential duties and isn’t a reasonable accommodation…usually depends on factors like the duties, essential to the job in question, the nature and length of the leave sought, and the impact ‘on fellow employees.'” Likewise, in Luke v. Board of Trustees Florida A&M University, the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged “a leave of absence might be a reasonable accommodation in some cases,” but noted an accommodation was unreasonable if it did “not allow someone to perform his or her job duties in the present or in the immediate future.”
Severson has been hailed as a victory for employers struggling to fill positions left temporarily vacant by employees well beyond the expiration of their FMLA leaves. Given the contrary decisions in other Circuits, employers should make sure they review the laws applicable to them in the jurisdictions in which they operate and be mindful that this Circuit split may make the issue ripe for consideration by the Supreme Court.