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Supreme Court Asked to Answer: How Much ADA Leave Is Required?

Lower court rejected plaintiff's request for months-long leave beyond FMLA time off

A blue chair on a desk.

​Employers aren't sure how much leave is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the appeals courts have offered differing opinions, creating confusion. However, the Supreme Court may weigh in and clarify.

On Jan. 18, the plaintiff in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft Inc. asked the high court to review his case, in which he claims employers must allow multi-month leave under the ADA, beyond the Family and Medical Leave Act's (FMLA's) mandated 12 weeks off.

The court has not yet decided whether it will take up the case.

We've gathered the most recent news from SHRM Online on this and similar lawsuits.

7th Circuit: ADA Does Not Require Extended Leave

Raymond Severson, an operations manager with a back impairment, took a 12-week medical leave under the FMLA to deal with the pain of a wrenched back. On the last day of the FMLA leave, he underwent back surgery and was unable to work for another three months. He was fired.

He sued, claiming his employer violated the ADA by failing to provide the extra leave. The court disagreed. It held that the ADA may require brief periods of medical leave—such as a few days or even weeks. But multiple-month periods of leave aren't required by the law, ruled the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. (SHRM Online)

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Coordinating Leaves of Absence]

ADA Experts Caution Against Following 7th Court Decision

David Fram, director of ADA and equal employment opportunity services with the National Employment Law Institute in Golden, Colo., has cautioned employers not to follow the 7th Circuit's decision. "I think that this decision is inconsistent with virtually all of the other courts and certainly is inconsistent with what the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] has said," he stated. Recommending that employers adopt a case-by-case analysis of when leave might be a reasonable accommodation, Michael McClory, an attorney with Bullard Law in Portland, Ore., said, "The 7th Circuit simply has a fundamental misunderstanding of the ADA." (SHRM Online)

$2 Million Settlement for Inflexible 12-Month Leave Cap

Putting a hard limit on the amount of disability leave an employee may take, even as high a limit as 12 months, violates the ADA, the EEOC has long held. It reached a $2 million settlement last August with United Parcel Service (UPS) to settle a claim that the company applied its 12-month leave cap rigidly. When an employee slipped on ice and had a flare-up of her multiple sclerosis, she requested time off in excess of the company's leave cap. She was fired and the EEOC sued under the ADA. After 10 years of litigation, UPS settled. "Having a multiple-month leave policy alone does not guarantee compliance with the ADA," said Julianne Bowman, the EEOC's Chicago district director. Additional leave may be required, according to the agency. (SHRM Online)

Lipnic: ADA Was Not Meant to Be a Leave Law

But at a session at the Association of Corporate Counsel annual meeting last fall, EEOC Acting Chair Victoria Lipnic said she does not think the ADA was intended to be a leave law either. She noted that the EEOC says leave can be an accommodation but added that "the idea that it can go on and on forever is problematic." (SHRM Online)

A Similar 7th Circuit Case

The 7th Circuit's Severson decision was followed by a similar ruling that months-long leave beyond FMLA time off is not required under the ADA. In the subsequent opinion (Golden v. Indianapolis Housing Agency), the appeals court held that an additional six months of leave was not required for an employee who had breast cancer. The employer, the Indianapolis Housing Agency, had offered the worker four additional weeks off beyond the FMLA's 12 weeks off, then fired her when she could not return from work after 16 weeks away. In keeping with Severson, the appeals court stated, "A multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA." (SHRM Online)

So Is ADA Leave Required or Not?

The 7th Circuit has solidified a rift among the appeals courts over whether multi-month ADA leave is required. Indefinite leave is never required—that much all the appeals courts agree. Some HR professionals hope the Supreme Court will resolve the split among appeals courts and review the Severson decision. (SHRM Online)


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