Heyl Royster

Reasonable Accommodation and a Qualified Individual with a Disability

october 26, 2017

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 18197 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), the Seventh Circuit held that an employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a qualified individual under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Facts of the Case

Raymond Severson had suffered from back pain since 2005. In 2006 he began working for Heartland where he performed manual labor and frequently lifted products weighing fifty pounds or more. Severson was diagnosed with back myelopathy caused by impaired functioning and degenerative changes in his back, neck, and spinal cord in 2010. Although this condition did not usually inhibit his ability to work, he occasionally experienced severe flare-ups that made it difficult, sometimes impossible, for him to walk, bend, lift, sit, stand, move, and work.

In June 2013 Severson injured his back, aggravating his preexisting condition. He left work early because of the pain and requested leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Heartland granted his request. Over the course of his leave, Severson submitted doctor notes informing Heartland that he had multiple herniated and bulging discs in his lumbar spine and was unable to work until further notice. During this time period, Heartland’s general manager and human resources manager remained in regular contact with Severson and approved his requests for continuation of his FMLA leave.

On August 13, 2013, Severson informed Heartland that he would have back surgery on August 27. He explained that the recovery typically took at least two months and requested an extension of his medical leave. However, by August 27, his 12-week FMLA entitlement would expire. On August 26, Heartland informed Severson that his employment would end when his FMLA expired on August 27. Severson was then invited to reapply when he recovered from surgery and was medically cleared to work.

Severson had back surgery on August 27. On October 17 his doctor gave him partial clearance to return to work, but restricted him to lifting no more than twenty pounds. The doctor lifted this restriction on December 5 and cleared him to return to work without limitation. Instead of reapplying for his former position, Severson brought suit against Heartland alleging discrimination in violation of the ADA.

Procedural Background

Severson’s complaint alleged that Heartland discriminated against him by failing to accommodate his physical disability. Specifically, Severson stated that Heartland could have, but did not offer him: (1) a two- or three-month leave of absence; (2) a transfer to a vacant job; or (3) a temporary light-duty position with no heavy lifting. Heartland filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Severson’s proposed accommodations were not reasonable. The trial court agreed and entered judgment for Heartland. Severson appealed. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a brief as amicus curiae in support of reversal.

Eligibility under the ADA

The ADA makes it unlawful for an employer to discriminate against a “qualified individual” based on disability. 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The ADA defines a “qualified individual” as “an individual who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). The parties agreed that Severson had a disability. They also agreed that frequently lifting fifty pounds or more was an essential function of his former position and that Severson was unable to perform this function at the time of his termination. Given Severson’s suggested accommodations, the court focused on whether a long-term leave is a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The ADA’s definition of “reasonable accommodation” is a flexible concept. The ADA simply states that a reasonable accommodation may include:

  1. making existing facilities used by employees readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities; and
  2. job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position, acquisition or modification of equipment or devices, appropriate adjustment or modifications of examinations, training materials or policies, the provision of qualified readers or interpreters, and other similar accommodations for individuals with disabilities.

42 U.S.C. § 12111(9).

While the definition of “reasonable accommodation” is illustrative, the definition of “qualified individual” is solid: a “reasonable accommodation” is one that allows the disabled employee to “perform the essential functions of the employment position.” 42 U.S.C. § 12111(8). The EEOC argued that a long-term medical leave should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when 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 job functions when he returns. The court disagreed, stating that such an “untenable” reading equated “reasonable accommodation” with “effective accommodation.” The court noted that “an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.” Severson, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 18197, at *8. Referring to a previous holding, the court added that “[a]n inability to do the job’s essential tasks means that one is not ‘qualified;’ it does not mean that the employer must excuse the inability.” Id. citing Byrne v. Avon Products, Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003). Therefore, because a multi-month medical leave does not permit the employee to perform the essential functions of the job, that employee is removed from the class protected by the ADA.

The court also addressed Severson’s other suggestions. First, that Heartland could have reassigned him to a vacant position. Although reasonable under the ADA, Severson had the burden of proving that there were vacant positions available to him at the time of his termination, which he did not. Lastly, as to Severson’s final suggestion, the court states that an employer is not required to create a new job or remove the principal duties of a current job to accommodate a disabled employee. Further, under the EEOC, the reasonable accommodation requirement does not mean an employer has to create a light-duty position for a non-occupationally injured employee with a disability. However, if the employer has a policy of creating light-duty positions for occupationally injured employees, then the same benefit must be extended to a non-occupationally injured employee with a disability, unless the employer can prove undue hardship. Here, Heartland had no such policy. Heartland, at its discretion, gave occupationally injured employees temporary duties if such work was available, but such assignments generally lasted no more than two days.

The court affirmed the trial court’s ruling granting summary judgment for Heartland.

In summary, the Seventh Circuit’s holding is significant for employers. The court said that a long term leave of absence request is not a reasonable accommodation, and was interpreted by the court to mean the following:

  • Such an absence really means an inability to work rather than getting a disabled individual the means to work.
  • It excuses an individual who is not working and establishes that an employee is no longer a qualified individual with a disability. Employers should carefully review accommodation requests of this nature in making employment decisions.
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