Employee Medical Leave Requests: Balancing the FMLA and ADA

When employees request a leave of absence due to medical issues, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires covered employers, those with 50 or more employees, to provide employees twelve weeks of unpaid leave for qualifying medical reasons. However, what if an employee needs more than twelve weeks of leave? Or, what if an employee has already used all of the employee’s FMLA leave for the year but needs more time off? Is the employer required to grant long periods of medical leave to employees in these circumstances? That question was recently addressed by two federal courts of appeal.

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017), the plaintiff suffered from serious back pain and was given twelve weeks of FMLA leave to recover and improve his condition. Toward the end of his FMLA leave, he notified his employer that he needed to have surgery on the last day of his twelve weeks of leave, and that he would need to be out for another two to three months after his FMLA leave expired to recover from the surgery. The employer denied his request for the additional leave time and terminated his employment.

The plaintiff sued the employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that the employer failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation for his disability. The ADA requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to disabled employees that help them perform their jobs, such as modified work schedules. The question in Severson was whether a multi-month leave of absence was a reasonable accommodation the employer had to provide under the ADA.

The Court held that the employer was not required to provide the plaintiff with three months of leave as a reasonable accommodation. The Court distinguished the requirements of providing FMLA leave and reasonable accommodations under the ADA. Like the FMLA, the ADA often requires employers to provide employees with short periods of leave time as a reasonable accommodation. However, according to the Court in Severson, long-term leaves of absence are generally not reasonable accommodations that an employer must provide under the ADA. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals covers Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. However, this decision should be persuasive to courts in the Eleventh Circuit as well, which covers Florida.

After Severson was decided, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals was confronted with a similar situation in the case of Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, No. 17-10391, 2017 WL 4857430 (11th Cir. Oct. 26, 2017). In Billups, the plaintiff was given six months of medical leave to recover from a shoulder injury suffered at work, pursuant to the employer’s medical leave policy. When the plaintiff was unable to return to work at the end of his leave period, the employer terminated his employment. The plaintiff sued, claiming the employer violated the ADA. The Court held that, because the employer had already given the plaintiff six months of leave, and there was still some uncertainty about when the plaintiff would be able to return to work, the employer did not have to accommodate the employee by providing him additional leave time for what would essentially be an indefinite period of time.

Whether an employer must provide a particular accommodation is a question of reasonableness that is determined on a case-by-case basis. These decisions provide guidance to employers that are faced with a situation where an employee requests long periods of medical leave. In that scenario, the employer generally must provide leave as required by the FMLA. However, if the employee is not entitled to FMLA leave or has exhausted his or her FMLA leave, these cases may support an employer’s decision to deny requests for leaves of absence that last several months if an employee is unable to perform their job during that time.

Case information: Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017) and Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, No. 17-10391, 2017 WL 4857430 (11th Cir. Oct. 26, 2017).

Prepared by:
Cameron H. Carstens, Esq.
[email protected]