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Court Holds Multi-Month Leave of Absence is Not a Reasonable Accommodation Under the ADA

By:  R. Eddie Wayland, TCA Legal Counsel

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has taken the position that a leave of absence following a return from Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave can constitute a reasonable accommodation. Indeed, in guidance it issued in May 2016 entitled “Employer-Provided Leave and the Americans with Disabilities Act,” the EEOC stated: “An employer must consider providing unpaid leave to an employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation if the employee requires it, and so long as it does not create an undue hardship for the employer.” In a recent decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit rejected that position and held that a multi-month leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Facts of the case

The employee had suffered from back pain since 2005. The employee began working for the employer in 2006. In 2010, the employee was diagnosed with back myelopathy. In 2013, the employee injured his back at home and thereby aggravated his preexisting condition. The employee was out of work on FMLA leave from June 5th into August.

On August 13th, the employee informed his employer that his condition had not improved and that he would undergo back surgery on August 27th, the day his FMLA leave expired. The employee requested an extension of medical leave past August 27th to cover his recovery period. The employer denied the employee’s request and informed him that his employment with the company would end after his FMLA leave was exhausted. The employer invited the employee to reapply with the company once he was medically cleared to work.

The employee was cleared to return to work without limitation in December. Instead of reapplying to work for the employer, however, the employee filed a lawsuit against the employer claiming a violation of the ADA by failing to accommodate the employee’s physical disability.

Decision of the Court

The court began its analysis of the case by noting that the ADA forbids discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” The court continued by stating the definition of a “qualified individual,” which is a person who “with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position.” From this the court reasoned: “So defined, the term ‘reasonable accommodation’ is expressly limited to those measures that will enable the employee to work.” The court then concluded: “An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.”

In rejecting the EEOC’s position on this issue the court stated: “If, as the EEOC argues, employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA is transformed into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.” The court added: “That’s an untenable interpretation of the term ‘reasonable accommodation.’” Accordingly, the court ruled in the employer’s favor.

Takeaway

This case is a great “win” for the company involved. Employers must be mindful, however, that this case is presently controlling federal law only in the states which fall under the appellate jurisdiction of the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana). Also, the decision applies specifically to the ADA and is therefore not necessarily applicable to similar state laws.

Thus, while this decision is a positive result for employers and may be persuasive authority in other jurisdictions, the immediate controlling impact is limited. Employers faced with similar types of accommodation requests in other federal jurisdictions or where state law applies should still proceed with caution. Each situation still has to be considered in the context of the specific facts and circumstances presented. But, the Seventh Circuit’s decision in this case represents a positive development, and presents an additional potential option for employers to consider when faced with similar requests.

R. Eddie Wayland is a partner with the law firm of King & Ballow. You may reach Mr. Wayland at (615) 726-5430 or at rew@kingballow.com. The foregoing materials, discussion and comments have been abridged from laws, court decisions, and administrative rulings and should not be construed as legal advice on specific situations or subjects.

October 3, 2017

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