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Employers get big ADA win in Seventh Circuit

October 06, 2017

American's with Disabilities ActOn Sept. 20, 2017, the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) handed employers a major victory regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the court ruled that a multiple-month leave of absence does not constitute a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The Court’s Rationale

In reaching its ruling, the court said that “[a]n employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.” The court took a common sense approach and contrasted the purpose of the ADA with the purpose of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In the court’s view, the ADA requires reasonable accommodations “that will enable the employee to work.” The ADA does not require accommodations that excuse the employee from working. The FMLA, on the other hand, provides a leave entitlement to employees who cannot work for any covered reason.

The Court’s Rejection of EEOC’s Interpretation

Most employers covered by the FMLA understand their obligation to provide an employee up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave due to a serious health condition or for other reasons covered by the FMLA. However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has complicated leave decisions by interpreting the ADA to require employers to provide long-term leaves in addition to the FMLA entitlement.

The court rejected this aspect of the EEOC’s ADA guidance. Appearing as amicus curiae in Severson, the EEOC argued that a long-term medical leave of absence qualifies as a reasonable accommodation if:

  1. The leave has a definite duration;
  2. The employee requests the leave in advance; and
  3. The leave will enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job upon returning to work.

According to the EEOC, the length of the leave should play no role in the analysis. The court found the EEOC’s interpretation “untenable” because it would transform the ADA “into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”

How Does Ruling Affect Employers?

Despite the court’s rulings, employers must continue to evaluate leave requests on an individual basis. First, the court stated that intermittent or short leaves of “a couple days or even a couple of weeks” may, in certain circumstances, be reasonable accommodations.

Second, employers must account for differences between the ADA and applicable state disability accommodation requirements. Wisconsin employers in particular must consider the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act’s accommodation requirements, which the state Supreme Court has interpreted to differ from those of the ADA.

Finally, employers must also account for the law in their federal circuits. The First Circuit Court of Appeals and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, for example, have approved multiple-month leaves as reasonable accommodations for disabled workers.

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