An extended leave of absence
for an employee is not a reasonable accommodation required by the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA), according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals. The court affirmed summary judgment against an employee who needed a
two- to three-month absence in addition to Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
An employee of Heartland
Woodcraft Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures, began working for
Heartland a year after he started experiencing back pain in 2005. Over time, he
was promoted from supervisor to shop superintendent to operations manager. In
2010, he was diagnosed with back myelopathy caused by impaired functioning and
degenerative changes in his back, neck and spinal cord.
The employee’s back condition
typically did not hamper his ability to work, although he was performing
physically demanding work for Heartland. At times, however, he experienced
severe flare-ups, making it hard—and sometimes impossible—for him to walk,
bend, lift, sit, stand, move and work.
In the late spring of 2013,
Heartland proposed to move the employee to a second-shift lead position due to
performance issues. This position required that the employee perform manual
labor in the production area of the plant, operate and troubleshoot production
machinery, perform minor repairs as necessary, maintain the building, and
frequently lift material and product weighing 50 pounds or more. Heartland
notified the employee of the demotion in a meeting on June 5, 2013. He accepted
it, but he never worked in his new assignment.
Earlier that same day, the
employee had wrenched his back at home, aggravating his pre-existing condition
and leaving him demonstrably uncomfortable. He left work early that day due to
pain and later requested and received FMLA leave retroactive to June 5, 2013.
He took a 12-week medical leave under the FMLA to deal with the pain. On the
last day of his leave, he underwent back surgery, which meant he would be
unable to work for another two or three months.
The employee asked Heartland
to continue his medical leave, but by then he had exhausted his 12-week FMLA
entitlement. The company denied his request and terminated his employment, but
it invited him to reapply for employment when he was medically cleared to work.
About three months later, the employee’s doctor lifted all restrictions and
cleared him to resume work.
Instead of reapplying, the
employee sued Heartland, alleging that it had discriminated against him in
violation of the ADA. He claimed that Heartland violated the ADA by failing to
provide a reasonable accommodation in the form of a three-month leave of
absence after his FMLA leave expired.
Heartland filed a motion for
summary judgment, arguing that the employee was not a qualified individual with
a disability under the ADA. The district court granted Heartland’s motion, and
the employee appealed the decision to the 7th Circuit.
The appeals court considered
the three accommodations that the employee proposed as ones that the company
could have offered him: a two- or three-month leave of absence, a transfer to a
vacant job, or a temporary light-duty position with no heavy lifting. The court
considered the request for a two- or three-month leave of absence as the most
The court noted that the ADA
states that a reasonable accommodation “may include … job restricting,
part-time, or modified work schedules [or] reassignment to a vacant
position.” The court also found that all of the proposed accommodations in
the ADA facilitate work rather than excuse long absences from work.
The appeals court reaffirmed
its decision in Byrne v. Avon Prods. Inc., 382 F.3d 379 (7th Cir.
2003), in which the court decided that an employee who needs a long-term
medical leave cannot work and thus is not a qualified person with a disability
under the ADA. In reviewing Byrne and subsequent decisions,
the court reasoned that brief periods of leave to deal with a medical
condition—such as a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may be required by
the ADA. But an inability to work for a multiple-month period removes a person
from the class of employees protected by the ADA, according to the 7th Circuit.
Severson v. Heartland
7th Cir., No. 15-3754 (Sept. 20, 2017).
Professional Pointer: Employers must always keep
in mind the ADA when dealing with employee medical leave issues. The Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission and many courts differ with the 7th Circuit’s
holding, and even the 7th Circuit recognizes that the FMLA’s obligations may
not be sufficient to satisfy the ADA’s reasonable accommodation requirements
when it comes to medical leave. The 7th Circuit serves Illinois, Indiana and
Converge HR Solutions, we understand that employees who perform manual labor are
more likely to experience injury at work,
which can require them to be absent from work for a period of time. While their
rights may be covered under various laws, such as the Family Medical Leave Act
or the American’s with Disabilities Act, it is still important to make sure
that you as the employer understand these laws in their entirety so no
confusion exists. Converge HR Solutions
can assist your company with these laws, as our HR Outsourcing service includes
Regulatory Compliance. We work with you and your employees, so that your
company does not have to worry about not complying. If you would like to learn more about what
else the HR Outsourcing service provides, or are interested in any of the other
products and services Converge has to offer, visit our website at https://convergehrsolutions.com/, email us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call at