The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has issued an important decision regarding limitations on an employee’s right to extended leave under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the past, disabled employees who have exhausted all other forms of leave, including leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), have turned to requesting leave under the ADA as a reasonable accommodation. Courts and the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have issued varied metrics as to when and to what extent such ADA leave was appropriate. Some courts have recognized leave of 90 days to be a reasonable ADA accommodation, and the EEOC previously opined that 180 days leave would be an acceptable ADA accommodation. But the Seventh Circuit’s new decision substantially limits the length of ADA leave that employers must offer.
The facts in the case before the Seventh Circuit are all too familiar to human resource professionals. The employee was originally granted 12 weeks under the FMLA to recover from a back injury that kept the employee from performing his job duties. On the last day of his granted leave, the employee decided to undergo back surgery that would require an additional 8-12 weeks recovery, and so he requested two to three months of additional leave as an accommodation under the ADA. The employee was terminated after his FMLA leave expired, and the employee subsequently sued the employer for discrimination under the ADA for its failure to provide the reasonable accommodation of a three month leave of absence after the expiration of his FMLA leave.
The Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of the employer and stated that the ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not something wielded to obtain medical leave entitlement. Paramount in its determination is the Court’s interpretation of a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. As defined, a “reasonable accommodation” includes only those accommodations that would allow the employee to work. The Court recognized that leave of a few days or weeks would be a reasonable accommodation, but leave spanning more than one month fell beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation required by the ADA.
Although this decision is subject to appeal and applies only to employees in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, it provides Indiana employers with a greater comfort level in applying a strict inactive-status policy that terminates the employment of those whose leaves exceed the protections of the FMLA. While a few days or weeks more of leave may be considered appropriate in response to a request for reasonable accommodation, the employer need not extend such leaves beyond those parameters so long as it applies its policy consistently and uniformly to all employees, regardless of the reason for long-term absence. The employer would also be prudent to commit its policy to writing to assist in maintaining the guideline’s integrity when faced with discrimination challenges.
The Labor and Employment Group at Bose McKinney & Evans can help ensure your organization is informed and ready to manage any labor and employment issue that may arise. Please contact your Bose McKinney & Evans labor and employment attorney with any questions or concerns.