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When FMLA Expires, Must an Employer Grant Additional Leave Under the ADA?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued a resounding "no" upholding a decision in favor of an employer. The employer denied an employee's request for an additional 2-3 months off when his FMLA expired. The Seventh Circuit's decision went so far as to stress that the "ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement." (Emphasis added.)

The case, Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft Inc., involved an appeal taken by an employee after a district court awarded summary judgment to the employer. (http://www.lawandtheworkplace.com/files/2017/09/Severson.pdf) The employee, after taking a 12-week medical leave under FMLA, was unable to return to his job. On the last day of his leave, he underwent surgery requiring him to remain off work for another 2-3 months. His company denied his request for continued medical leave and terminated his employment; however, he was invited to reapply for his position when he was medically cleared to work. About 3 months later, when the employee was cleared to return to work, rather than reapply for his position he sued his employer claiming discrimination in violation of the American's with Disabilities Act (ADA) U.S.C. ยงยง 12101. He argued that his request for 2-3 months additional leave amounted to a reasonable accommodation.

In affirming the district court's decision, the Seventh Circuit held that "[a]n employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a 'qualified individual' under the ADA." The Court added that, "[s]imply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working," underscoring its rejection of the EEOC's position that an extended leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances. In explaining its rejection of the EEOC's position, the Court noted that the EEOC had erroneously equated "reasonable accommodation" with "effective accommodation." The Court took further issue with the EEOC's insistence that length of leave is irrelevant in determining an accommodation's reasonableness. The Seventh Circuit roundly rejected this reasoning, concluding that accepting it would transform the ADA "into a medical-leave statute-in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA."

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