Human Resources News & Insights

Supreme Court declines ADA leave case: Why that’s not a bad thing

So the Supreme Court decided not to tackle whether extended leave is a reasonable ADA accommodation. But that could be more good news than bad for employers.

The Supreme Court has declined to review an appeals court ruling in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.

In that case, the 7th Circuit Court ruled that “a multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation.”

By declining to take up that case, the Supreme Court leaves the Severson ruling in effect. And that ruling — a ruling which the the 7th Circuit Court said “[l]ong-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA” — was hailed as a huge victory for employers.

Although the 7th Circuit ruling only applies directly to employers in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, a number of other circuit courts have handed down similar rulings on extended leave under the ADA.

Doesn’t permit essential functions

As HR Morning covered previously, the Severson case centered on when extended leave becomes an undue hardship for employers. In that case, Raymond Severson had a back condition that required surgery. After his FMLA leave was exhausted, Severson requested additional time off. Heartland Woodcraft terminated him, but encouraged Severson to reapply once he was better.

Severson took the company to court, claiming his employer failed to give him the accommodation he needed — more leave. Heartland Woodcraft argued that Severson had already been granted six months of leave and it just wasn’t reasonable to give him any more time off.  The court ruled that Severson would not have been able to work if he had been granted this additional leave, which is an essential part of an ADA accommodation request.

“Medical leave spanning multiple months does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of his job,” the court said. It also added that long-term medical leave is what the FMLA is for, not the ADA.

Not a leave-entitlement statute

For employers, leaving the 7th Circuit’s ruling intact is ultimately a good thing. That ruling — and similar rulings — interprets the ADA as an “anti-discrimination” law as opposed to a “leave-entitlement” statute. So even though employers may have to grant some extended leave as an ADA accommodation in certain situations (and engage in the interactive process in all cases in which the ADA is in play), they now have some guidance into how much leave is too much in the eyes of some parts of the federal court system.

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