In a decision that took more than one year from the date of oral argument to issue, a panel of the Seventh Circuit recently affirmed summary judgment for a company that was sued for violations of the ADA, including a failure to accommodate, after it terminated an employee who had exhausted his Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave and was unable to return to work for at least another two months due to a planned surgery. Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 115-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20 2017).
With assistance from the EEOC, the employee argued that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA when the leave is for a definite duration, requested in advance, and likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions upon return to work. The Court rejected this argument, noting that 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.
The Court noted that a leave of absence “may” be a reasonable accommodation, provided that the duration of the leave is short (such as a few days), but squarely rejected the idea that the ADA is a medical leave statute, or an “open-ended extension of the FMLA.” Simply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled employee the means to work; rather, it excuses his work. An inability to do the job’s essential functions means that one is not “qualified”; it does not mean that the employer must excuse the inability. This decision follows several others, including the 2014 Hwang v. Kansas State University decision by a panel of the Tenth Circuit, which are providing employers with much-needed guidance on the issue of leave as a reasonable accommodation.