How long is too long?

Federal appellate court draws the line for an extended leave of absence, but there are still no easy answers

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A recent Federal Court of Appeals decision serves as a reminder of the legal complexity and uncertainty that employers face in administering medical leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation. In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling that an employer did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by not granting an employee a medical leave of absence that exceeded his FMLA leave period by two to three months. In that case, the employee’s job duties entailed physical labor that included lifting up to 50 pounds. He took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act when he encountered back problems, and after exhausting his FMLA leave time, he informed the employer that he needed surgery that would require him to be off work for two to three additional months. The employer terminated his employment and informed him that he could reapply when he was released to return to work. The employee was able to return to work after three months, but instead of reapplying, he brought a lawsuit against the employer for failing to reasonably accommodate him under the ADA.

The district court found that this lengthy leave, during which the employee was not able to perform the essential functions of his job, was not a reasonable accommodation, and granted summary judgment in favor of the employer. The Seventh Circuit Court affirmed the district court’s decision, stating: the “ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” Specifically, the Court noted that reasonable accommodation measures pursuant to the ADA are those that enable an employee to “perform the essential functions” of the job, and that the EEOC’s position that the length of the leave is irrelevant in determining the reasonableness of the accommodation, would transform the ADA “into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA,” which is not reasonable.

However, employers should not interpret this decision as a green light to automatically refuse requests for lengthy leaves of absence. Indeed, the Severson Court specifically noted that there are some circumstances under which a leave of absence could be a reasonable accommodation, especially since the ADA specifically recognizes modified work schedules as an accommodation. Moreover, other federal court cases have aligned their decisions closer to the EEOC’s position, and in California, the reasonable accommodation obligations under the Fair Employment and Housing Act could require lengthy leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation. As such, the Severson case only functions to show the inconsistent and unsettled views in applying the ADA. But one thing is clear, all requests for accommodations should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis and employers should always document their efforts to engage in an interactive process with employees who request accommodations. It is also recommended that employers consult with employment counsel before terminating or taking any adverse employment action against any employee due a disability or request for accommodation.