ADA & Disabilities, Leave Management, Policy, and Compliance

7th Circuit: The ADA is Not the New FMLA

In a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit—which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin—ruled that granting an employee additional leave beyond what he’s entitled to under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is not a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

back injury

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Although decisions from the 7th Circuit are not binding on all courts, the appellate court’s opinion should provide employers with persuasive authority that justifies commonsense compliance with the ADA. Let’s take a closer look.

Facts

“Darrin” began working for Heartland Woodcraft in 2006. Over the years, he rose through the ranks from supervisor to superintendent, finally becoming operations manager. He performed poorly in the operations manager position, so on June 5, 2013, he was moved to a lead position.

The lead position is a physically demanding job. Its essential functions include performing manual labor in the plant’s production areas, operating and troubleshooting production machinery, performing equipment repairs, maintaining the building, and frequently lifting materials and product weighing 50 pounds. Darrin never performed the job, however, because on the same day he was transferred, he wrenched his back at home, aggravating a preexisting condition.

Darrin requested FMLA leave, and Heartland granted his request. But his condition didn’t improve during the FMLA leave, and he was unable to return to work after he exhausted his 12-week allotment. He was scheduled to undergo disk decompression surgery on the day his FMLA leave expired; the typical recovery time for that surgery is at least 2 months. Consequently, he requested an extended leave.

Because Darrin was unable to return to work when his FMLA leave expired, Heartland notified him that his employment would be terminated. He was told that he could reapply with the company when he recovered from surgery and was medically cleared to work. He underwent the surgery and was medically cleared to return to work without limitation on December 5.

Instead of reapplying for a job at Heartland, Darrin sued, claiming his former employer violated the ADA by not extending his FMLA leave as a reasonable accommodation. The trial court dismissed his claims, finding that additional leave isn’t a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. Darrin appealed to the 7th Circuit.

Court’s Decision

Analyzing Darrin’s claim, the court recognized that the ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a leave entitlement statute, and it requires employers to accommodate the disabilities of “qualified individuals.” Under the ADA, a qualified individual with a disability is someone “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that [he] holds or desires.”

The court noted that the plain language of the ADA indicates that a reasonable accommodation is something that enables an employee to “perform the essential functions” of his job. Pointing out the obvious, the court stated that a leave of absence excuses an employee’s inability to work rather than enabling him to work.

Based on that analysis of the ADA, the court held that a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation. According to the court, “Not working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions,” and “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” Because Darrin’s request for additional leave wouldn’t allow him to perform the essential functions of his job, he wasn’t a qualified individual with a disability.

The court did add a caveat, noting that brief periods of leave to deal to with a disability could be considered a reasonable accommodation. However, it made clear that a medical leave spanning multiple months does not assist an employee in performing the essential functions of his job, and the need for such leave removes the individual from the protection of the ADA.

In reaching its conclusion, the court noted that the FMLA, not the ADA, covers medical leaves of absence, and it rejected the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) position that the length of a leave makes no difference in the reasonable accommodation analysis.

The court reasoned that ignoring the length of a leave request would transform the ADA into an open-ended extension of the FMLA, which is “an untenable interpretation of the term ‘reasonable accommodation.'” Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir., Sept. 20, 2017).

Takeaway for Employers

While the 7th Circuit’s ruling is certainly great for employers, and we hope other Circuit Courts will begin to follow suit. The decision is in stark contrast to the EEOC’s position on the issue. As the court noted, the EEOC staunchly maintains that an extended leave of absence can constitute a reasonable accommodation that an employer is obligated to provide, regardless of whether the employee’s FMLA leave has expired.

So although you can take some comfort in the court’s decision, it likely won’t change the EEOC’s position in jurisdictions outside the 7th Circuit. As a result, you should carefully assess requests for extended leaves of absence to determine if they might be a reasonable accommodation in the eyes of the EEOC or another court.

Martin J. Regimbal, a shareholder of The Kullman Firm, and an editor of Mississippi Employment Law Letter, can be reached at 662-244-8824 or mjr@kullmanlaw.com.