Perhaps the most frequent question we receive with regard to employee medical leave involves the following scenario: An employee requests and is provided family and medical leave. Upon the expiration of the 12-week FMLA entitlement, the employee provides doctor’s information indicating that he is unable to return to work and will need significant additional time away in order to return to his prior duties. The employer then asks how much time it must provide in addition to FMLA leave in order to avoid accusations that it failed to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
On September 20, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals answered this question in favor of employers. Contrary to the administrative position taken by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the court held that any significant leave beyond FMLA is not a form of required reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and therefore that employers do not have to prove undue hardship to justify denying the additional leave request.
In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the plaintiff took FMLA leave for multiple herniated discs in his back. He notified his employer that he was scheduled for back surgery the day his FMLA leave expired, and he requested another three months of medical leave in order to allow him to return to work. The employer denied this request, terminating the plaintiff, and advising him that he could apply for a vacant position upon his recovery. The plaintiff sued, claiming that his employer failed to provide reasonable accommodation by denying him the additional leave. The EEOC filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiff’s claims. The agency stated its position that any fixed period of post-FMLA leave can be a required reasonable accommodation under the ADA, and that employers have the burden of demonstrating that the additional leave request poses an undue hardship.
The Seventh Circuit rejected this argument, affirming summary judgment for the employer. In its decision, the court concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA that extend for more than a brief period of time are never required under the ADA. The ADA requires that protected employees be qualified to perform the position. Workers unable to perform their duties for extended periods of time are by definition not qualified. This means that the court never reached the question of whether the additional leave request constituted an undue hardship. The employer does not have to provide significant additional leave because requiring this would convert the ADA to a medical leave entitlement statute.
The Seventh Circuit specifically left undisturbed prior decisions holding that very brief post-FMLA leaves may still fall under the definition of a required accommodation. The court analogized these leave requests to employees requesting a part-time or modified work schedule as part of their recovery. Although the court did not specify the amount of leave required under this exception, it would not go beyond a few weeks past the expiration of FMLA leave. This decision also does not address leave requirements for employees not eligible for FMLA. If the ADA is not considered a medical leave entitlement law, the same reasoning may apply to any employee leave request extending beyond a few weeks.
If followed by other federal appellate courts, this decision could close the door on employers’ legal obligation to provide lengthy post-FMLA leaves of absence, without the need to justify the denial based on specific business needs. While employers certainly could agree to such requests, they would also have the flexibility to fill the positions, and invite the employee to reapply for employment upon recovery.