Are Extended Leaves of Absence "Reasonable Accommodations" for Disabled Employees?

One of your employees hurts his back on the job. He exhausts the leave you provide him under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), but he is still not able to work. He gives you a doctor’s note saying that, with 3 additional months off, he will be completely healed and ready to resume full-time employment. He demands that time off as an accommodation under The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). Do you have to give it to him? A recent 7th Circuit Court of Appeals decision just answered that question with a resounding “NO.” See Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18197 *; 2017 WL 4160849 (7th Cir., Sept. 20, 2012). The Court went back to fundamentals. The ADA defines a reasonable accommodation as one that allows the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of the employment position. The Court then pointed out the obvious: a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation because “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” However, like most cases in this area of the law, the Court refused to draw any bright line. It did not say that the ADA could NEVER require a leave of absence be a reasonable accommodation for a disabled employee. It left open the possibility that a shorter time off work may be required under the ADA to accommodate a worker. How short? It did not say. The take away from this case is this. If your employee asks for time off to recover from an injury, if he needs additional time off after his FLMA leave is exhausted, that request may implicate the employer’s duty under the ADA to reasonably accommodate that worker. You should consult an employment lawyer to determine your best course of action. The Court’s holding that some short-time leaves-of-absence may be required under the ADA requires that you tread carefully in this area, with the idea of balancing possible litigation costs with the cost to the company of providing the requested accommodation. If you have any questions regarding employment issues, please contact Mike Donner or Steve Setliff at (804) 377-1260.