Long-term Leave of Absence not a Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA

On September 20, 2017, the 7th Circuit held that a long-term medical leave of absence does not constitute a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA").  Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. 9/20/2017).  The plaintiff took a 12-week medical leave of absence under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") to get medical treatment for a bad back.  On the last day of his leave, he had back surgery, which required that he remain off of work for another two or three months.  He requested continuation of his medical leave from his employer, the defendant, but by then he had used up all of his FMLA leave.  The employer denied his request, terminated his employment, but invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.  Three months later, his doctor cleared him to return to work, but he did not reapply; instead, he sued the company, claiming that it had discriminated against him on the basis of his disability, in violation of the ADA, by failing to provide him with a reasonable accommodation in the form of a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired.

The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant; and the 7th Circuit affirmed, stating that, "[t]he ADA is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement."  The ADA prohibits discrimination against a qualified individual on the basis of disability.  A qualified individual with a disability is a person who can perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without reasonable accommodation.  The term reasonable accommodation is limited to measures that allow a disabled employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.  An employee who requires long-term medical leave cannot work and, therefore, is not a qualified individual entitled to the protections of the ADA.  A long-term leave of absence does not constitute a reasonable accommodation within the meaning of the ADA.

However, a brief period of leave to deal with a medical condition could be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA under some circumstances.  Time off may be a reasonable accommodation for intermittent conditions.  Intermittent time off or a short leave of absence, such as a couple of days or weeks, may be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule, which the ADA enumerates as specific examples of reasonable accommodations.

Long-term medical leave is covered by the FMLA, which entitles covered employees to a total of 12 work-weeks of leave during any 12-month period, when a serious health condition makes the employee unable to perform his or her job duties.  The ADA, on the other hand, only applies to employees who can perform their job duties, with or without reasonable accommodation.