Seventh Circuit Rules That Employees Requiring Extended Medical Leave Are Not Protected By The Americans With Disabilities Act

In a recent decision, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals – which governs Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin – ruled that the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require employers to give employees additional time off work after the leave afforded by the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) is exhausted. 

Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (Sept. 20, 2017). http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/rssExec.pl?Submit=Display&Path=Y2017/D09-20/C:15-3754:J:Sykes:aut:T:fnOp:N:2032346:S:0

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by an employee of a Wisconsin store fixture manufacturer who took 12 weeks of FMLA leave from his physically demanding job to recover from severe back pain.  On the final day of leave, the employee had back surgery which required an additional two to three months of time off.  When the employee requested that his medical leave be extended, the employer denied his request and terminated his employment.  In response, the employee sued his employer alleging disability discrimination in violation of the ADA.

In his lawsuit, the employee argued that his former employer violated the ADA by failing to provide one of three accommodations for his physical disability:  1.) a two or three-month leave of absence, 2.) a transfer to a vacant job, or 3.) a temporary light-duty position with no heavy lifting.  However, the employer ultimately prevailed in moving for summary judgment on the issue that the employee’s proposed accommodations were unreasonable.

In affirming the District Court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit noted that the ADA only requires employers to “reasonably accommodate” a “qualified individual” with a disability.  As noted by the Seventh Circuit, an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and is, therefore, not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.  The Seventh Circuit further reasoned that the ADA “is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”

The decision here potentially signals great news for employers with 50 or more employees who are, therefore, subject to the FMLA which affords 12 weeks off.  In situations where an employee exhausts those 12 weeks, employers would not be required to provide additional time off under the Seventh Circuit’s ruling here.

Ryan Taylor is a partner at Tressler LLP in their commercial litigation practice and can be reached at rtaylor@tresslerllp.com or 312-627-4032.