Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft: Seventh Circuit holds that multimonth leave of absence is outside the scope of the ADA (Updated 9/28/17)

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (Sept. 20, 2017), the Seventh Circuit held that a multimonth leave of absence lies beyond the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court reasoned that a "reasonable accommodation" is limited to a measure that enables an employee to work; an individual who needs extended medical leave cannot work, and therefore, he is not protected by the ADA.

In this case, Raymond Severson had exhausted his entitlement to 12 weeks of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, and he requested additional leave of two to three months while he recovered from back surgery. Rejecting Severson's denial of accommodation claim, the court explained: "[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."

Although the court broadly rejected any reasonable accommodation claim challenging the denial of long-term leave, the court seemed to be particularly troubled by the EEOC's failure to impose any constraints on the length of the leave requested. In the EEOC's view, long-term medical leave qualifies as a reasonable accommodation if it is (1) of a definite and limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to do his job when he returns. In rejecting this view, the court stated that the EEOC mistakenly equates a "reasonable accommodation" with an "effective accommodation," which transforms the ADA into a "medical leave statute -- in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA."

To my mind, the Seventh Circuit's position is a harsh and narrow interpretation of the ADA. And indeed, it appears to be an outlier, judging by the many cases cited by the EEOC from other circuits.  But the EEOC's position may lie at the other extreme in failing to provide any limitation on the length of leave that can potentially qualify as a "reasonable" accommodation. This is not to suggest that the two- or three-month extension that Severson had requested was unreasonable, but as a matter of common sense, I would think that at some point the length of medical leave requested by an employee may be so long as to be inherently unreasonable. 

Update (9/28/17): In reading commentary on the Severson decision, I was surprised to learn that the Tenth Circuit, in a decision by then-Judge Neil Gorsuch no less, reached the same conclusion about an employee's right to long-term leave as a reasonable accommodation. In Hwang v. Kansas State University, the court concluded that an employer is not required to provide employees with more than six months of sick leave as a reasonable accommodation. The court explained:

. . . [R]easonable accommodations -- typically things like adding ramps or allowing more flexible working hours -- are all about enabling employees to work, not to not work. 
. . .
[I]t's difficult to conceive how an employee's absence for six months -- an absence in which she could not work from home, part-time, or in any way in any place -- could be consistent with discharging the essential functions of most any job in the national economy today. Even if it were, it is difficult to conceive when requiring so much latitude from an employer might qualify as a reasonable accommodation. Ms. Hwang's is a terrible problem, one in no way of her own making, but it's a problem other forms of social security aim to address. The Rehabilitation Act seeks to prevent employers from callously denying reasonable accommodations that permit otherwise qualified disabled persons to work -- not to turn employers into safety net providers for those who cannot work.
Although Hwang is a Rehabilitation Act case, the same reasoning applies to the ADA, and in fact, the Tenth Circuit discusses at length the EEOC's ADA guidance.

Hwang is significant because it shows that Severson, even if it represents a minority view, may not be that much of an outlier. Oddly, the Seventh Circuit never cited Hwang in its Severson decision, nor did the EEOC cite Hwang in its amicus brief.

This blog reflects the views solely of its author. It is not intended, and should not be regarded, as legal advice on how to analyze any particular set of facts.