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The EEOC has provided guidance that in its view a fairly long leave of absence should be considered a reasonable accommodation even after FMLA leave has been exhausted. The Court in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 33 AD Cases 1113, September 20, 2017 disagreed rather strongly with that view and did not follow EEOC advice.
Mr. Severson worked for Heartland since 2006 performing a variety of manual labor duties in the production area of the plant, operating production machinery, making minor repairs, maintaining the building, and frequently lifting items and product weighing 50 pounds or more.
On June 5, 2013, petitioner wrenched his back at home, which aggravated a back problem dating back to 2005. He received FMLA leave over the summer months for care of multiple herniated discs. On August 13, 2013, Severson called HR and advised that he needed to undergo back surgery on August 27, 2013, seeking an extension of his medical leave of several months. The company advised that his FMLA leave would expire on August 27, 2013. The company stated that Severson’s employment would terminate when his FMLA leave expired. He was told that he could reapply when he recovered from his surgery.
Severson’s doctor performed surgery, then in October put restrictions on him and eventually removed his 20 pound lifting restriction on December 5, 2013. He was given clearance to return to work without limitation. Instead of reapplying for the position, Severson sued and argued that the company failed to provide him with reasonable accommodation.
The trial court granted Heartland’s motion for summary judgment, and Severson appealed to the 7th Circuit. Severson relied on EEOC Guidance to the effect that a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is of a definite, time-limited duration and is likely to allow the worker to return to the job and perform essential job functions. The Court said as follows:
Perhaps the more salient point is that on the EEOC’s interpretation, the length of the leave does not matter. If, as the EEOC argues, employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA is transformed into a medical leave statute – in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA. That’s an untenable interpretation of the term ‘reasonable accommodation.’
The Court affirmed the dismissal of this case, stating that a reasonable accommodation is something that allows the employee to perform the essential job functions, but a request for several months of leave is focused on not working. It said not an extended leave of absences accomplishes the exact opposite of what the ADA is about, namely enabling the worker to do his or her job. The logic is compelling but readers should recognize that not all United States Courts of Appeal agree on this issue. At least in the Seventh Circuit, (Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin), the logic of this case will prevail.
John H. Geaney, Esq., is an Executive Committee Member and a Shareholder in Capehart Scatchard's Workers’ Compensation Group. Mr. Geaney concentrates his practice in the representation of employers, self-insured companies, third-party administrators, and insurance carriers in workers’ compensation, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Family and Medical Leave Act. Should you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Mr. Geaney at 856.914.2063 or by e‑mail at email@example.com.