Supreme Court Punts on Deciding Whether ADA Could Require More than 12 Weeks of Medical Leave As A Reasonable Accommodation

The United States Supreme Court has declined review of a 7th Circuit Court of Appeal decision holding that the American’s with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) does not require employers to provide any reasonable accommodation of an extended medical leave for any more than twelve (12) weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).

In  Severson v. Heartland Wood, Inc. No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), the employee, Mr. Severson, went out on company approved FMLA leave for severe back pain in June 2013.  The day before he was supposed to return to work, he underwent back surgery necessitating an additional 2 or 3 months of medical leave to recover from the surgery. Mr. Severson, having exhausted his FMLA leave, asked his employer Heartland for the additional medical leave.  The company refused and terminated his employment.  Mr. Severson then sued his employer arguing that he was not being given the extra leave as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The District Court sided with the employer on a summary judgement motion.  On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed, holding that the employer did not have to provide the additional leave other than the 12 weeks of medical leave available under the FMLA. Specifically, the Seventh stated that, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” The Court also reasoned that the goal of an ADA accommodation is to allow disabled employees to perform the essential functions of their jobs, not to excuse them from working and that “a multi month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”

The 7th Circuit’s Severson decision conflicts with several ADA decisions from other jurisdictions that have found that a reasonable accommodation under the ADA may include a medical leave of absence when the leave is for a definite and time limited duration and would allow the employee to return to his or her job to perform the essential functions of the job when they are cleared to return to work.  However, with the United States Supreme Court’s decision to not take this case up on appeal, there is now a split of  authority throughout the country on the issue of whether a medical leave of absence in addition to what is provided under the FMLA can be a reasonable accommodation.

New Jersey employees can take comfort in the fact that our state’s Law Against Discrimination mandates that an extended medical leave of absence, may, in certain circumstances, require that an employer provide a medical leave of absence as a reasonable accommodation.  This was the case in Brown v. Dunbar Armored Inc., No. 1:2008-3286 (D.N.J. 2009) which like the facts in Severson, involved an employee who needed additional medical leave at the time his FMLA leave was about to expire.

In rejecting a blanket rule that the Law Against Discrimination does not require an employer to provide any additional medical leave passed the 12 weeks provided under the FMLA, the New Jersey District Court found that the employer could be liable for not providing the additional medical leave under the LAD in certain circumstances.  The Court noted that in this case, there were genuine issues of disputed facts concerning whether the employer engaged in an interactive process prior to summarily terminating the employee’s employment in response to the employee not being cleared to return to work at the expiration of the FMLA leave.

The interplay between the reasonable accommodations and the FMLA is another example of New Jersey being ahead of the majority of the rest of the country in protecting employee’s rights.  While there now appears to be a split around the country concerning whether the ADA can offer further medical leave  than what is provided under the FMLA, New Jersey employers are well advised to first engage in an interactive process with their employees to determine whether additional medical leave can be provided under the New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination.