Extended Employee Medical Leave May Be Unreasonable Under ADA

What are an employer’s obligations when an employee requests medical leave but does not have any additional leave available?

Traditionally, attorneys have cautioned clients that they may still have an obligation to provide extended leave as an “accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Under the ADA, employers are required to provide “reasonable accommodations” to known physical or mental limitations of qualified individuals with disabilities, unless the accommodation would impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the business.

This begs the question: How much leave is reasonable under the ADA?   The 7th Circuit Appellate Court recently weighed in; ruling that the ADA does not require employers to provide multiple months of continuous leave.  While this ruling does not answer the posed question in the context of short-term or intermittent leave, it should provide valuable guidance to employers.

The case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft.  In the case, Severson, the employee, began experiencing back pain and took 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).  At the end of the 12 weeks, Severson had back surgery and requested three additional months of leave.  Heartland, the employer, denied Severson’s request and ultimately terminated his employment.  Severson’s suit claimed that the denial of his request was a violation of the ADA “reasonable accommodation” requirement.  The Court held that when the only proposed “accommodation” does not allow the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, the employee is not a qualified individual under the ADA.

Notably, this decision does not bar leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. The 7th Circuit recognized that a brief period of leave due to a medical issue may be an appropriate accommodation, and thus protected by the ADA. Although extended leave may no longer be required, each instance requires a close evaluation of the circumstances. Employers should remain vigilant when deciding to grant or deny leave under the ADA and consulting with an attorney will likely help guide your decision-making.

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