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Extended Medical Leaves and the ADA: Court Provides Much-Needed, Long-Awaited Clarity

"The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement." These are the words employers have been waiting more than 25 years to hear, since the date the ADA first became effective, and even more so after the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993. They address an issue that has vexed employers since day one; that is, whether the duty to accommodate requires an employer to provide an extended medical leave after an employee has exhausted all of the medical leave available to him under the FMLA. The EEOC has vigorously contended that it does, particularly where the proposed leave is of a definite, time limited duration; requested in advance; and, likely to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his job upon his return. On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals flatly rejected the EEOC's contention.

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Case No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. 2017), the court addressed an issue that is now commonplace for employers: An employee had a serious back problem. He took 12 weeks of FMLA, then, upon the exhaustion of his FMLA, notified his employer that he was having surgery and requested a two-month extension. The employer denied his request, terminated his employment and invited him to reapply once he was released to return to work. However, when the employee was released three months later, he did not reapply. Instead, he sued, claiming the employer had failed to accommodate his disability by refusing to grant him an extended medical leave.

In a decision striking for its clarity and common sense, Circuit Judge Dianne Sykes held that an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and is thus not a "qualified individual" under the ADA. In doing so, she specifically found: "A multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of reasonable accommodation under the ADA," and further noted, "an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working." Thus, while brief periods of leave to deal with medical conditions could be a reasonable accommodation in some circumstances (e.g, when dealing with flare-ups of intermittent conditions that require a couple of days or weeks' absence), medical leaves that span multiple months are not, since "long-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA," not the ADA.

The Severson decision is a much-needed beacon of light on an issue that has been shrouded in grey. Employers can now determine, with reasonable certainty, that requests for medical leave extending months beyond the exhaustion of all FMLA rights are not reasonable as a matter of law, and an employee requesting such an extension is not a "qualified individual with a disability" protected by the ADA.

Of course, the only remaining question is whether the same holds true under a state fair employment law, such as the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act, where the Wisconsin Supreme Court has already held that it is not bound by interpretations of the ADA when dealing with the duty to accommodate under Wisconsin law. Stay tuned.

If you would like more information, or have questions about the Severson decision or the interaction between the ADA and FMLA, contact Wessels Sherman Attorney Alan E. Seneczko at (262) 560-9696, or alseneczko@wesselssherman.com.

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