The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit recently issued a decision affirming limitations on unpaid leave that employers must allow injured or disabled workers as a “reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended (“ADA”). In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the plaintiff/employee was diagnosed with back myelopathy. He requested and received 12 weeks of unpaid leave pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). During his FMLA leave, the employee was treated by his doctor with steroid injections. This treatment, however, offered him minimal relief. As the employee neared the end of his FMLA leave, he requested additional medical leave so that he may undergo disc decompression surgery. The typical recovery time following such surgery is approximately two months. The employer denied his request and informed him that his employment would be terminated following his FMLA leave. The employee was told that he could reapply for employment with the employer after obtaining medical clearance. The employee brought suit against his employer alleging that it had discriminated against him in violation of the ADA by failing to accommodate his physical disability.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed a brief as amicus curiae, arguing that “a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is (1) of a definite, time-limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns.” The Seventh Circuit, however, gave little deference to the EEOC’s arguments. Instead, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its own position in Byrne v. Avon Prods., Inc., 328 F.3d 379 (7th Cir. 2003), where it concluded that a long-term or multi-month leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation. The Court held that “reasonable accommodations” are intended to allow disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their position. It concluded that “a long term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation” because “[it] does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.”
While this decision may ultimately prove persuasive to other federal courts, the effect is currently confined to employers within the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction (i.e., Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin). Notably, the various United States Courts of Appeals have taken vastly varying approaches to this issue, creating a circuit split.
Ohio Employers and Employers in Other Jurisdictions
In responding to requests for “reasonable accommodations,” Ohio employers should be cognizant of the position of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit has taken a middle-ground approach, assessing such “reasonable accommodations” on a case-by-case basis. The Sixth Circuit has concluded that the reasonability of an accommodation must be determined following an individualized inquiry (e.g., a blanket policy barring all medical leaves in excess of 12 weeks would be unlawful). In previously deciding that a three-month leave of absence was, in fact, a reasonable accommodation, the Court stated “that no presumption should exist that uninterrupted attendance is an essential job requirement … a medical leave of absence can constitute a reasonable accommodation under appropriate circumstances.” Cehrs v. Ne. Ohio Alzheimer's Research Ctr., 155 F.3d 775, 783 (6th Cir. 1998) The Sixth Circuit has, however, opined that leaves in excess of a year or for an indefinite period of a time are not likely reasonable. See Walsh v. United Parcel Serv., 201 F.3d 718, 727 (6th Cir. 2000) (“Our review of case law in this and other circuits disclosed no cases where an employer was required to allow an employee to take a leave of absence for well in excess of a year-let alone indefinitely-as a reasonable accommodation to the employee's disability … it would be very unlikely for a request for medical leave exceeding a year and a half in length to be reasonable.”).
This area of law is notoriously confusing for employers. Where there are no hard and fast rules, employers are often left having to make difficult decisions with respect to granting unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation. This most recent Seventh Circuit decision serves to clarify the requirements for employers in that jurisdiction. However, employers in other jurisdictions will, for the time being, continue to face the difficult analysis associated with deciding whether a longer leave of absence is a “reasonable accommodation.”
Employers that are confronted with such challenging situations often benefit from contacting counsel. If you have any questions regarding this most recent development in the law or would like additional information on how to manage a “reasonable accommodation,” please feel free to contact Tom Green, Katie Basch, or any KWW attorney.