Q: How long does an employer have to accommodate an employee’s disability in the form of a leave of absence?
A: The law in most jurisdictions is unclear. In fact, in most jurisdictions, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, there is no bright line rule as to the length of leave time that is reasonable under the ADA. Typically courts look at the surrounding circumstances to determine whether the amount of time off is a “reasonable accommodation” and have held that leaves longer than three months were required in some circumstances as a reasonable accommodation.
Given this lack of certainty, employers are left with the daunting task of determining how much leave is “reasonable,” thus forcing many employers to typically extend leaves beyond what they may believe is proper. To add to the uncertainty, the EEOC, which is the employee’s first pit stop in bringing an ADA claim, has taken the position that a two-to-three month leave, or longer may be reasonable. Moreover, state laws protecting disabled individuals, such, for example, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, may provide for even greater protections to the employee.
A recent Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case, however, has provided some concrete direction, at least to employers with employees located in Illinois, Wisconsin, or Indiana, regarding the amount of leave required as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In that case, the Court held that a multi-month leave likely was not required as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017), the employee brought a lawsuit after the employer terminated his employment rather than give him two to three months of additional leave to recuperate from back surgery after he had used up his Family and Medical Leave Act allotment. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, stated that the ADA is “not a medical leave entitlement” and specifically held that “a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” In particular, the Court held that a such a multi-month leave cannot be a reasonable accommodation because a reasonable accommodation allows a disabled employee to work and perform the essential functions of the position, which the employee in this case could not do, thus disqualifying him from the protections of the ADA. The Court noted however, that a short leave of absence—say, a couple of days or even a couple of weeks—may, in appropriate circumstances, be a reasonable accommodation. Although the Severson case provides support for the position that extended, multi-month leaves of absence may not be required under the ADA, employers should not take it as a green light to reject all requests for a leave of absence under the ADA.
The Severson case is binding law only in the Seventh Circuit. It remains to be seen whether other courts will follow the Seventh Circuit’s lead in limiting the amount of leave that is considered to be “reasonable.” Until that occurs, however, employers should tread lightly when making these decisions and consider all of the risks and benefits associated with rejecting a leave request.