Supreme Court Leaves Employer Friendly Severson Decision Intact

By:  Melanie Dunajeski

Sometimes what the Supreme Court doesn’t do is just as important as what it does. On April 2, 2018, the Supreme Court declined to accept review of an important case for employers in the Seventh Circuit, leaving intact a decision that was widely seen as “employer friendly.” Back in November, I wrote about the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals case Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. that gave employers some relief from lengthy leave requirements as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In Severson, an employee sought three months of medical leave to have surgery on top of the maximum 12 weeks off from the Family Medical Leave Act leave that he had already taken for his back problems. The employer declined to provide him the additional leave and terminated his employment. The employee sued his employer for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), alleging that the employer failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation when it denied his request for extended leave. The trial court, and then Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, held that the ADA does not require an employer to grant an open-ended extension of the leave available under FMLA as a reasonable accommodation. As the Seventh Circuit’s opinion states, the ADA is not a “medical leave statute,” and while “intermittent time off or a short leave of absence (a couple of days or even a couple of weeks) may, in appropriate circumstances, be analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule. The inability to work for a multi-month period removes a person from the class protected by the ADA,” since the extended leave would not allow the employee to perform the essential functions of his job.

The Supreme Court’s decision to decline review of Severson leaves the Seventh Circuit’s opinion intact for now—and that is a major victory for employers in the states encompassed by the Seventh Circuit (Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin). Since the Seventh Circuit issued its opinion, the Tenth and Eleventh Circuit Courts of Appeal have issued opinions that adopt positions similar to that of the Seventh Circuit. While the Supreme Court’s decision not to review this case has less impact than had they reviewed it and affirmed the Seventh Circuit Opinion, unless or until the Supreme Court decides to take up the issue in another case, this is solid law for employers to rely on in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Do you have questions about the interplay of FMLA and ADA? Contact Melanie Dunajeski