TIME IS NOT ON YOUR SIDE: SEVERSON V. HEARTLAND WOODCRAFT, INC. AND THE LIMITS OF REASONABLE ACCOMMODATIONS UNDER THE ADA

Although less rare than the recent solar eclipse, common-sense results can be elusive when dealing with workplace discrimination lawsuits. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, however, recently delivered such a decision in the case of Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., in which the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s finding that a long-term medical leave is not a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (the “ADA”).  As the appellate court noted, the ADA “is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement,” and reasonable accommodations are those that are designed to enable an employee to work, not ensure that he cannot work.

The case arose when the plaintiff, Raymond Severson, an employee of the defendant, Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., aggravated a chronic back condition while at home, leaving him unable to perform his job’s essential functions. His physician treated him with steroid injections, but they did not remedy his condition, and he elected to undergo disc decompression surgery on the very last day of his twelve-week FMLA leave.  Two weeks earlier, Mr. Severson had advised Heartland of his imminent operation and requested that the company provide him with two-to-three months of additional time in which to recover.

Heartland declined Mr. Severson’s request, noting that he had exhausted his twelve-weeks of Family Medical Leave Act time, and it informed him that his employment would terminate when his FMLA leave expired. Heartland did, however, invite him to reapply for a position when he was medically cleared to return to work.  Approximately three months later, though, after his physician lifted all medical restrictions, Mr. Severson instead decided to sue, claiming that Heartland had violated the ADA by failing to accommodate his disability.  He alleged that Heartland could have accommodated him by providing him with the lengthy leave of absence he had requested, by transferring him to a vacant position, or by providing him with a temporary, light-duty position that did not entail heavy lifting.  Heartland responded that these proposed accommodations were not reasonable, and the federal district court agreed, entering summary judgment on Heartland’s behalf.

Affirming the trial court, the Seventh Circuit noted that the ADA proscribes discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” In turn, a “qualified individual” is an employee “who, with or without reasonable accommodation, can perform the essential functions of the employment position that such individual holds or desires.”  In Severson, there was no disagreement that the plaintiff had a disability, nor did the parties dispute the fact that frequently lifting fifty pounds or more was an essential job function which Mr. Severson had been unable to perform at the time of his discharge.  The question, then, was whether he was a “qualified individual” entitled to ADA protections, to which the Seventh Circuit answered “No.”

As noted, the determination of whether an individual is a qualified individual is predicated in relevant part upon whether accommodations will enable him or her to perform the essential functions of the job. The primary accommodation Mr. Severson sought, however — a two-to-three-month leave – was designed to prevent him from performing his job functions, at least during the time he would be on medical leave.  Citing its own precedent, the Seventh Circuit astutely noted, “[n]ot working is not a means to perform the job’s essential functions,” adding that “[t]he rather common-sense idea is that if one is not able to be at work, one cannot be a qualified individual.”

The Seventh Circuit distinguished Mr. Severson’s requested leave from those situations in which an employee seeks intermittent time off or a short leave of absence — a few days, or even a couple of weeks — due to the individual’s impairment occasionally flaring up. The court noted that the latter situations are analogous to a part-time or modified work schedule, which are two forms of reasonable accommodations listed in the ADA.  In sharp contrast, in claiming that extended time off was a reasonable accommodation, Mr. Severson – with the full-throated support of the EEOC – sought to transform the ADA “into a medical-leave statute – in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”

The court also made short shrift of the other possible accommodations Mr. Severson raised, noting that he had failed to satisfy his burden of proving that there had been other vacant positions at the time of his discharge. Additionally, the court held that “an employer need not create a light duty positon for a non-occupationally injured employee with a disability as a reasonable accommodation.”  This came with a caveat, however, the court observing that if an employer had a policy of creating light-duty positions for employees who were injured on the job, then the “same benefit ordinarily must be extended to an employee with a disability who is not occupationally injured unless the company can show undue hardship.”

What Does It Mean?

As the Seventh Circuit held in Severson, “[l]ong-term medical leave is the domain of the FMLA,” and the ADA is not a kind of add-on.  In reaching its decision, the court underscored the fact that there should be some verifiable link connecting the employee’s limitations, the employer’s accommodations, and the position’s essential job functions.  In other words, if an employee demands accommodations that do not enable him to perform the essential functions of his or her position, employers are not required to provide them.  Furthermore, if there are no reasonable accommodations that would allow the employee to perform these functions, then that employee is not deemed a “qualified individual” under the ADA and is not entitled to its protections.