Federal Court Provides Clarity Regarding Leave Rights Under Federal Disability Law

September 29, 2017

While most employers have been able to successfully manage compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a major area of concern has been the degree to which the law provides leave rights to disabled individuals extending beyond those already provided in the employer’s plan, which is subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act.  In this regard, the Seventh Circuit has given clearer guidance on when an ADA accommodation exceeds the limits of reasonability, with the court finding the ADA "is an anti-discrimination statute, not a medical leave entitlement."  The Court ruled that eight weeks or more of leave, in addition to that already taken using FMLA, is an unreasonable accommodation under the ADA.  The Court further ruled that an employee with a pre-existing back condition, after taking 12 weeks of federally-protected leave, was not unlawfully discriminated against when the employer failed to agree to a request of additional leave of 2 to 3 months after a surgery to alleviate the condition.  The EEOC has long held that if an employee's doctor could place a specific estimated endpoint for the leave, the longer leave term should be permitted, leaving employers unable to enforce any "maximum leave" policies.  The Seventh Circuit, however, reasoned that the ADA, at its core, requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees to allow them to perform the core function of their job, not to grant leave periods in the hope that the employee may be able to return.  In the wake of this decision, employers are being advised to, first and foremost, talk to employees who take FMLA leave for disability-related reasons about their ability to return to work at the end of their FMLA period.  Also, within the Seventh Circuit, there is now clear guidance that leave requests for months at a time are no longer protected as a matter of law.