Tag Archives: Family Medical Leave Act

Seventh Circuit Holds that Multiple-Month Extended Leaves Are Not Reasonable Accommodations Under the ADA

Contributed by Allison P. Sues, September 27, 2017

Because not all recoveries from medical conditions come in neat twelve-week packages, employers commonly need to address employees’ requests for additional leave after they have exhausted all leave afforded under the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) or company policy.

Clock and StethoscopeThe U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long taken the position that terminating an employee who has exhausted FMLA leave, but is still not able to return to work, may violate the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). For instance, the EEOC guidance, issued on May 9, 2016, opined that providing additional leave may be necessary as a reasonable accommodation.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently issued a decision running contrary to this EEOC guidance and the prevailing precedent in other circuits, holding in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., that an employee is not entitled to extended leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

In this case, employee Severson took a twelve-week medical leave from work under the FMLA to deal with serious back pain (the statutory maximum). Shortly before this leave expired, Severson notified his employer that he was scheduled to undergo back surgery, and requested an additional two to three months of leave to recover from surgery. The company denied Severson’s request to continue his medical leave beyond the FMLA entitlement, terminated his employment, and invited him to reapply when he was medically cleared to work.  Instead, Severson sued, alleging a failure to reasonably accommodate his disability—namely, a three-month leave of absence after his FMLA leave expired.

The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court and clarified that a medical leave spanning multiple months is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation. Finding that the employer did not violate the ADA by refusing to provide the additional leave, the Seventh Circuit explicitly stated that an employee, who cannot not work or perform their job’s essential functions, is not a “qualified individual” under the ADA.  Further highlighting its position, the Court distinguished between the FMLA, which it held was intended to provide long-term medical leave for those who cannot work, while the ADA is meant to require accommodation only for those “that can do the job.”

Before employers in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana reinstate strict Maximum Leave Policies and No-Fault Termination policies, whereby employees are automatically terminated if they cannot return to work when FMLA or other awarded leave is exhausted, several limitations to Severson should be noted.

Severson’s holding is limited to “medical leave[s] spanning multiple months.” The Court acknowledged that finite extensions of leave for shorter durations – described as “a couple of days or even a couple of weeks”, but less than multiple months – may still be deemed a reasonable accommodation.

The Court further acknowledged that intermittent leaves of short duration may constitute reasonable accommodations in the same way a part-time or modified work schedule may be a reasonable accommodation for employees dealing with medical flare-ups. Moreover, employers should be cautious about maintaining 100% Healed Policies, whereby an employer requires employees to have no medical restrictions whatsoever when their leave ends.

At any time employees have exhausted their leave, but are not fully cleared to return to work, the employer should engage in the ADA’s interactive process and consider the following before deciding to terminate employment:

  • Whether the employee’s current medical restrictions affect the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions of the position;
  • If the restrictions do impact the employee’s ability to perform the essential functions, are reasonable accommodations available that would enable the employee to perform these functions;
  • Whether vacant positions exist that the employee would be qualified to perform and could be reassigned into;
  • Whether the employer has a policy of creating light-duty positions for employees who are occupationally injured and whether this benefit could be extended to the employee without posing an undue hardship; and
  • Whether the employee’s request for additional leave is definite in time and of a short duration, and if this extended leave could be provided without posing an undue hardship.

 

Employers Do Not Have to Allow Unacceptable Workplace Behavior Due to a Disability

Contributed by Michael Wong

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA, ADAAA) and Rehabilitation Act, which incorporates most of the ADA standards, prohibit discriminating against employees based on their disabilities.  Indeed, with the ADAAA amendment, recent court decisions have broadened the scope of what is considered a disability, as well as what steps an employer must take in order to comply with the law.

In doing so, employers may feel that their hands are tied behind their back in dealing with employees who perform poorly and/or act out at work.  However, just because an employee is disabled does not mean that they should be given carte blanche freedom in what they say and do in the workplace. Recently, the Eastern District of Wisconsin dismissed a former Wisconsin Department of Transportation employee’s claims under the Rehabilitation Act (which incorporates most of the ADA standards) and Family Medical Leave Act, finding that the employee’s conduct was unacceptable.  In doing so the court followed the Seventh Circuit case, Brumfield v. City of Chicago, 735 F.3d 619 (7th Cir. 2013) and held that an employer may terminate an employee for engaging in unacceptable workplace behavior without violating the ADA (or Rehabilitation Act), even if the behavior was precipitated by a mental illness.

Specifically, the court held that the employee’s hysterical screaming and suicidal behavior in front of co-workers and members of the public was simply not behavior that an employer generally has to tolerate or accommodate. Indeed, the court recognized that absent a disability, an employer would otherwise be entirely justified in immediately terminating an employee who engaged in such behavior.

While this may be an extreme example, employers should understand that their hands are not tied when it comes to dealing with employees who blame their poor performance or unacceptable workplace behavior on a disability. However, since this is a sensitive subject that can very easily lead to a discrimination claim, employers should make sure to understand the current case law and consult with legal counsel before taking disciplinary steps that may include termination.

 

More on DOMA’s Demise – The DOL Updates the FMLA

Contributed by Karuna Brunk

As we previously discussed here and here, on June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) in United States v. Windsor.  In August 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor issued new rules for the Family Medical Leave Act implementing Windsor.  The DOL has amended its definition of “spouse” to include “husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the state where the employee resides, including ‘common law’ marriage and same-sex marriage.”

This new rule is referred to as “the state of residence rule” because it relies on where the employee lives, as opposed to where a marriage is celebrated.  Under the new rule, an employer is required to provide FMLA leave to an employee seeking leave in order to care for a same-sex spouse with a serious health condition if the employee resides in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage.  Currently only 13 states recognize same-sex marriage – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. 

In accordance with this new rule, employers should review and revise their leave policies.  If an employer has employees who live in multiple states, it may be tempting to apply a blanket policy that gives leave to care for same-sex partners in all cases, regardless of the employee’s state of residence.  However, remember that if an employer grants job-protected leave to an employee who resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, that leave cannot be counted as FMLA leave.  For example, if an employee wanted to take leave to take care of his sick, same-sex spouse and he resided in a state that did not recognize same-sex marriage, that employee would be entitled to take the full 12 weeks of FMLA leave for another purpose – to take care of his child, for example – in the same calendar year. 

Additionally, note that the DOL has not expanded the definition of “spouse” to include civil union or domestic partner relationships.  This is especially significant for Illinois employers because Illinois recognizes civil unions but does not recognize same-sex marriage.