Long Term Leaves of Absence NOT a Reasonable Accommodation under the ADA
In an absolutely mind-blowing decision, the Seventh Circuit (which encompasses Illinois) has ruled that a long term leave of absence is NOT a reasonable accommodation which employers must offer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). In analyzing the ADA, the Court noted that it is an anti-discrimination statute, and not a medical leave entitlement. This ruling will have grave consequences for employees who require time off to deal with a medical or mental issue that prevents them from working.
Under the ADA, an employer is obligation to provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled employee unless doing so would constitute an undue hardship upon the employer. According to this new ruling, a “reasonable accommodation is expressly limited to those measures that will enable an employee to work.” Under the Court’s interpretation, an employee who needs long term medical care is not a “qualified employee” under the ADA. Simply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his/her not working.
This Court ruling is at odds with interpretations of the ADA in other jurisdictions, as well as the long standing position advanced by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (“EEOC”). The EEOC had argued that long term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation where the leave is (1) of a definite, time limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential functions of the job when he/she returns. Unconvinced with this argument, the Court went on to claim that to adopt what had been long accepted in the past would transform the ADA into a medical leave statute – in effect, an open ended extension of the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”), a concept which the Court rejected in whole. The Court did leave open the possibility that “intermittent time off or a short leave – say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks may- in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to part time or a modified work schedule.”
Employers should proceed with great caution in this area. Especially those with multi-state locations, as this ruling may not be applicable in other jurisdictions. As a result, employers with a multi-state national footprint cannot assume this holding will apply outside the Seventh Circuit. All requests for leave should be analyzed on a case by case basis. Also, as part of the interactive process when leave is involved, employers should consider options besides leave that could enable an employee to continue working, such as a transfer to a vacant position, or in very limited circumstances, light duty. With this newly activist view of the role of long term leave under the ADA, it is clear, should the case be appealed further, that it may very well end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Why this is so troubling is that with the appointment of Justice Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, it is very likely that the Seventh Circuit’s narrowing of the protection for employees will be upheld. (Just as a note, Justice Gorsuch previously ruled, as a Justice for the Tenth Circuit, that extended leaves of absence, beyond that already offered by an employer’s leave policies, is not required.)
All of this boils down to the loss of a very important tool previously available to a disabled employee who needs time to deal with his/her medical or mental issues before returning to work.
With over 33 years’ experience in advising employers and employees on workplace issues, let Boznos Law work with you to ensure you are ready to meet the challenges posed by the changes to the employment laws. Call Bill Boznos today at (630) 375-1958 or contact us at www.boznoslawoffice.com/contact-us through our website.