The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a law that’s designed to prevent employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of disability. In the past, long-term leave was considered a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. However, a recent ruling has changed that.
This update was spurred by a recent case called Severson vs. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. The plaintiff, Raymond Severson, was employed by Wisconsin-based retail display fixtures fabricator Heartland Woodcraft Inc., since 2005. During that time, he received multiple promotions and was operations manager.
In 2010, he was diagnosed with myelopathy, which according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Is an injury to the spinal cord due to severe compression that may result from trauma, congenital stenosis, degenerative disease or disc herniation.” As a result, Severson experienced significant back problems that resulted in him being unable to work.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), he was granted 12 weeks to tend to this issue and recover. After exhausting his FMLA leave, he told his employer that he required surgery, which would result in absence from work for an additional two to three months.
At that point, Heartland Woodcraft told Severson that his job would be terminated at the end of his FMLA leave, but he could reapply once he had recovered from his surgery and was able to return to work. Severson then sued Heartland Woodcraft on the basis that they failed to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
On September 20, 2017, the Seventh Circuit ruled in favor of Heartland Woodcraft saying that their actions did not violate the ADA. According to Judge Sykes, “A long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation.” After analyzing the language of the ADA, he concluded, “It’s an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”
What This Means for Employers
Attitudes are shifting when it comes to long-term leave. Although you’re still required to remain compliant with the FMLA, you may not be responsible to provide long-term leave once an employee’s 12 weeks have been exhausted. The decision from the Severson vs. Heartland Woodcraft case makes it clear that this isn’t a violation of the ADA. The courts are siding with employers on this one.
Seyfarth Shaw LLP summarizes everything perfectly with the following statement. “If an employee cannot medically substantiate that they can return to work close to the expiration of their FMLA leave, employers may have greater legal flexibility in determining whether or not to accommodate the request.”
They also point out that if other circuits follow suit, companies may no longer be required to provide post-FMLA long-term leave. It’s critical to obtain updated medical information from an employee as they near the end of FMLA. This will protect your company and prevent unnecessary litigation.
Severson vs. Heartland Woodcraft represents a key change in the way employers approach long-term leave. The ruling is a definite victory for small to mid-sized businesses and means increased flexibility moving forward.