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Supreme Court declines to hear extended leave case

Split Continues in the Circuits

Posted April 10, 2018

Last year, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that an extended leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The U.S. Supreme Court was asked to review the decision, but the High Court denied the request. Therefore, as of now, the Seventh Circuit’s decision stands, and it now joins the 10th and 11th Circuit in this respect.

In the case (Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.), an employee took 12 weeks of FMLA leave for back issues. At the end of those 12 weeks, he needed surgery. He asked his employer to continue his medical leave, as he would need two to three months more leave to recover from the surgery. The employer denied the extended leave request and terminated him.

The employee filed a claim charging that his employer had discriminated against him because it failed to provide a reasonable accommodation — namely a three-month leave beyond his 12 weeks of FMLA leave.

The Seventh Circuit found for the employer, holding that leave does not give an individual with a disability the means to work, it excuses him from working. A medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job. The inability to work removes a person from ADA’s protection. A couple of weeks, however, might be reasonable.

Severson petitioned the Supreme Court to resolve the issue — to chime in on whether the ADA requires that employers provide an extended leave as a reasonable accommodation.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces the employment provisions of the ADA, indicates that a leave of absence is reasonable if it does not pose an undue hardship, as the employee would be able to return to work after the leave. Therefore, an employer would not need to provide a leave that would pose such a hardship. An indefinite leave of absence, however, has already been seen as unreasonable.

Where does that leave employers?

Since there is no overall federal case law guidance regarding this issue, much will depend upon where you are located. If you are in the states governed by the 7th, 10th, or 11th Circuits (IL, IN, WI, CO, KS, NM, OK, WY, UT, AL, FL, and GA), you might have more wiggle room when it comes to denying extended leave of multiple months, at least for now. The EEOC, however, might still argue their view, so you will want to tread carefully.

Taking a stance on denying leave could impact company culture and employee morale, so you’d need to consider all the potential repercussions. If you have many employees who are abusing leave, you might want to be a bit more restrictive. If not, providing leave when employees are experiencing medical challenges might be or continue to be good company policy.

This article was written by Darlene M. Clabault of J. J. Keller & Associates, Inc.

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