Employee Benefits-Seventh Circuit Holds That A Leave Of Absence Is Not A Reasonable Accommodation For Purposes Of The ADA

The case of Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No.15-3754 (7th Cir. 2017) involved the following situation.  From 2006 to 2013, Raymond Severson worked for Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures.  The work was physically demanding.  In early June 2013, Severson took a 12-week medical leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (the “FMLA”) to deal with serious back pain.  On the last day of his leave, he underwent back surgery, which required that he remain off of work for another two or three months.

Severson asked Heartland to continue his medical leave, but by then he had exhausted his FMLA entitlement.  The company denied his request and terminated his employment, but invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.  About three months later, Severson’s doctor lifted all restrictions and cleared him to resume work, but Severson did not reapply.  Instead he sued Heartland alleging that it had discriminated against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”), by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation—namely, a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired.  The district court awarded summary judgment to Heartland and Severson appealed.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (the “Court”) affirmed the district court’s decision.  It said that the ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.  The ADA forbids discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  A “qualified individual” with a disability is a person who, “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.”  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.  A multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.