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Circuit Court of Appeals Rejects EEOC Position that a Long-Term Leave of Absence Can Constitute a Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA

By on October 13, 2017 in Court Rulings with 0 Comments

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 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.

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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