7th Circuit Restricts Extent of Medical Leave Under ADA

By: Storrs Downey, Capital Member

While all employers with 50 or more employees must provide their employees up to 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), less clear is how much additional time beyond those 12 weeks an employer must provide its employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The new Seventh Circuit Court decision, Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (September 20, 2017), has addressed that topic head-on. There the Court held that the ADA is an anti-discrimination and not medical-leave entitlement statute. While the FMLA is specifically designed to provide employees with up to three months of excused absence from work, the ADA is not designed for that purpose.

The plaintiff in Severson injured his low back at home and took a 12-week leave of absence for his medical condition. His doctor recommended low back surgery which would require an additional 2-3 month absence from work. At the expiration of his FMLA 12-week leave, his employer declined to extend plaintiff’s leave of absence and terminated him.

Referring back to its decision from 14 years earlier in Byrne v. Avon Products, Inc., 328 F3d 379 (7th Circuit 2003), the Court reiterated its position that an employer’s obligation for a reasonable accommodation does not include an employee’s long-term medical leave. The Court went on to explain that an intermittent or short leave of absence of a couple of weeks off work might be appropriate but an extended leave of several weeks or more is outside the protection of the ADA.

Despite this ruling and prior Court decisions, the EEOC continues to take a very aggressive stance with regards to its interpretation to accommodate the ADA has required employers to accommodate the multiple weeks and even months leave of absence of its employees.

Employers in Illinois, Indiana and other states within the Seventh Circuit should continue to maintain flexible leave of absence guidelines that do not have automatic up and out termination notices after exhaustion of 12 weeks FMLA leave but Severson gives them some reassurance that only accommodating short leaves are usually necessary.

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