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An extended leave of absence for an employee is not a reasonable accommodation required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The court affirmed summary judgment against an employee who needed a two- to three-month absence in addition to Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave.
An employee of Heartland Woodcraft Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures, began working for Heartland a year after he started experiencing back pain in 2005. Over time, he was promoted from supervisor to shop superintendent to operations manager. In 2010, he was diagnosed with back myelopathy caused by impaired functioning and degenerative changes in his back, neck and spinal cord.
The employee's back condition typically did not hamper his ability to work, although he was performing physically demanding work for Heartland. At times, however, he experienced severe flare-ups, making it hard—and sometimes impossible—for him to walk, bend, lift, sit, stand, move and work.
In the late spring of 2013, Heartland proposed to move the employee to a second-shift lead position due to performance issues. This position required that the employee perform manual labor in the production area of the plant, operate and troubleshoot production machinery, perform minor repairs as necessary, maintain the building, and frequently lift material and product weighing 50 pounds or more. Heartland notified the employee of the demotion in a meeting on June 5, 2013. He accepted it, but he never worked in his new assignment.
Earlier that same day, the employee had wrenched his back at home, aggravating his pre-existing condition and leaving him demonstrably uncomfortable. He left work early that day due to pain and later requested and received FMLA leave retroactive to June 5, 2013. He took a 12-week medical leave under the FMLA to deal with the pain. On the last day of his leave, he underwent back surgery, which meant he would be unable to work for another two or three months.
The employee asked Heartland to continue his medical leave, but by then he had exhausted his 12-week FMLA entitlement. The company denied his request and terminated his employment, but it invited him to reapply for employment when he was medically cleared to work. About three months later, the employee's doctor lifted all restrictions and cleared him to resume work.
Instead of reapplying, the employee sued Heartland, alleging that it had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA. He claimed that Heartland violated the ADA by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation in the form of a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired.
[SHRM members-only toolkit: Accommodating Employees' Disabilities]
Heartland filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the employee was not a qualified individual with a disability under the ADA. The district court granted Heartland's motion, and the employee appealed the decision to the 7th Circuit.
The appeals court considered the three accommodations that the employee proposed as ones that the company could have offered him: a two- or three-month leave of absence, a transfer to a vacant job, or a temporary light-duty position with no heavy lifting. The court considered the request for a two- or three-month leave of absence as the most significant.
The court noted that the ADA states that a reasonable accommodation "may include ... job restricting, part-time, or modified work schedules [or] reassignment to a vacant position." The court also found that all of the proposed accommodations in the ADA facilitate work rather than excuse long absences from work.
The appeals court reaffirmed its decision in Byrne v. Avon Prods. Inc., 382 F.3d 379 (7th Cir. 2003), in which the court decided that an employee who needs a long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a qualified person with a disability under the ADA. In reviewing Byrne and subsequent decisions, the court reasoned that brief periods of leave to deal with a medical condition—such as a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may be required by the ADA. But an inability to work for a multiple-month period removes a person from the class of employees protected by the ADA, according to the 7th Circuit.
Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft Inc., 7th Cir., No. 15-3754 (Sept. 20, 2017).
Professional Pointer: Employers must always keep in mind the ADA when dealing with employee medical leave issues. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and many courts differ with the 7th Circuit's holding, and even the 7th Circuit recognizes that the FMLA's obligations may not be sufficient to satisfy the ADA's reasonable accommodation requirements when it comes to medical leave. The 7th Circuit serves Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with Doumar Martin in Arlington, Va.
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