In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., plaintiff exhausted his 12-week FMLA leave to deal with back pain. He underwent back surgery on the last day of his FMLA leave. The surgery required a medical leave of absence of another two-three months. Plaintiff requested an extension of his medical leave of absence. The employer denied the request and terminated the plaintiff’s employment, inviting him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.
Plaintiff was released to return to work three months later but rather than reapplying for his former job, he filed suit alleging an ADA violation. The district court granted Heartland’s motion for summary judgment. The 7th Circuit affirmed the grant of summary judgment.
The 7th Circuit noted the ADA is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement. The court noted the Act protects employees who can perform the essential functions of the job “with or without a reasonable accommodation.” So defined, the term “reasonable accommodation” is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work. An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.
Severson and the EEOC encouraged the court to retreat from its prior jurisprudence. The court rejected the request. The court specifically held: “A multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” The court noted a “reasonable accommodation” is one that allows the disabled employee to “perform the essential functions of the employment position.” If the proposed accommodation does not make it possible for the employee to perform his job, then the employee is not a “qualified individual” as that term is defined in the ADA. The court noted that the illustrative examples listed in § 12111(9) are all measures that facilitate work. As noted, “Simply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.”
The court went on to say that intermittent time off or a short leave of absence—say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule, two of the examples listed in § 12111(9). But a medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job. To the contrary, the inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA.
Plaintiff also argued that reassignment to open positions was an available accommodation. However, plaintiff only referenced open positions in the period following his termination, not open positions at the time of his termination.
Finally, the court reiterated that an employer is not required to “create a new job or strip a current job of its principal duties to accommodate a disabled employee.” Under EEOC guidance, “[a]n employer need not create a light duty position for a non-occupationally injured employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation.” On the other hand, if an employer has a policy of creating light-duty positions for employees who are occupationally injured, then that same benefit ordinarily must be extended to an employee with a disability who is not occupationally injured, unless the company can show undue hardship.
The Severson opinion provides guidance to employers navigating FMLA and ADA requirements. It distinguishes between short-term and long-term medical leaves of absence (here 2-3 months was considered long term) with short-term considered a reasonable accommodation, while long-term leave is not.