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Employers Left in the Dark After U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Issue Ruling on Long Term Leave as a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals holding that a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The plaintiff in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. had asked the Supreme Court to decide whether there is a per se rule that a finite leave of absence of more than one month cannot be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  Without the Supreme Court stepping in to resolve the split among the federal circuit courts, employers are left without clear guidance as to how to navigate the interplay between the ADA and extended leaves of absence.

The Underlying Court Decisions

Raymond Severson worked as an operations manager at Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., (“Heartland”) a fabricator of retail display fixtures.   In 2013, Mr. Severson took a 12-week medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) to deal with significant back pain.   At the conclusion of the FMLA period, Mr. Severson underwent back surgery and advised Heartland that he could not work for another two to three months while he recovered from the surgery.  Heartland denied the request for additional leave and terminated his employment, inviting him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work. Rather than doing so, Severson filed suit in the District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, alleging that Heartland had violated the ADA by failing to provide the additional leave time as an accommodation.

The District Court granted Heartland’s motion for summary judgment and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.  While finding that Severson had a disability and that an essential requirement of his job was frequently lifting fifty pounds or more, the court declined to find that Severson was a qualified individual entitled to ADA protections.  The court reasoned that the accommodation sought by Severson – a two to three month leave – would not assist him in his position, but rather would keep him from performing his job functions altogether. Ultimately the court found that while the ADA may require brief periods of medical leave, such as days or even weeks, multiple month long periods of leave are not required under the ADA, as the law’s function is not to serve as medical leave statute – stating that “…not working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions…”.

Not long after the Severson ruling, the Seventh Circuit doubled down on its position, issuing a similar holding in Golden v. Indianapolis Housing Agency.  There, an employee suffering from breast cancer sought additional leave after she had exhausted her FMLA leave, as well as an additional four weeks of leave offered by her employer.  The employer denied the request and terminated her employment when she was unable to return to work.  The court sided with the employer, holding that an additional six months of leave was not required and that a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

What Now?

Now that the Seventh Circuit has issued two consistent rulings on the issue, are employers insulated from liability if they decline accommodation requests for prolonged leave under the ADA?  Not quite.  The Seventh Circuit’s recent decisions have merely solidified the rift between the federal appeals courts on whether multi-month ADA leave is required.  While it seems all appeals courts, and even the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), agree that indefinite leave is never a requirement, the consistency ends there.  In fact, the EEOC has specifically stated that placing a limit on the amount of disability leave to which an employee is entitled is a violation of the ADA.

Now that the Supreme Court has declined to hear the matter, the circuit court split remains and employers are left questioning how to proceed when faced with requests for prolonged leave from their employees.  In light of the conflicting rulings, employers should evaluate each request on a case by case basis to determine what is warranted or required under the circumstances.  As always, employers should continue to engage in the ADA’s interactive process and ensure communication with the employee before, during and after FMLA leave.

Ultimately, given the recent contradictory holdings and potential for exposure to liability for employers, strong consideration should be given to consulting with outside counsel before deciding whether an employee’s leave request would qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.  We will continue to monitor the circuit split on this issue, and will issue updates as they become available.

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Jennifer R. Budoff is a Mintz Associate who counsels employers on employment matters, including discrimination, retaliation, harassment, and wrongful termination matters. Jennifer represents employers in actions before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Department of Labor.