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Federal Appellate Court Rules Long-Term Leave of Absence Cannot Be a 'Reasonable Accommodation'

Author: Michael J. Smoron

November 1, 2017

In September 2017, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that an employer was not required to accommodate an employee by granting him a multimonth leave after the employee’s 12 week FMLA leave expired.

In the case of Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F. 3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017), the employee used all 12 weeks of FMLA leave and then scheduled a surgery on the final day of leave. The employer denied the request for extended leave and terminated the employee.

The employee asked the Court to extend the interpretation of “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to include long-term unpaid leave. The Court held that that a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation. The Court rationalized by maintaining that a reasonable accommodation gives a disabled individual the means to work, while an extended leave of absence excuses the employee from working.

The EEOC filed a brief in support of the employee in which it argued that long-term medical leave should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is for a definite time, limited duration, requested in advance, and likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions upon return. The Court disagreed with the interpretation, finding that such application would transform the ADA into a medical leave statute, as an “open-ended extension of the FMLA.”

As such, employers should take note that “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA do not include long-term unpaid leave.

Michael J. Smoron