Seventh Circuit Narrows Reasonable Accommodation Requirements

Most employers, at some point or another, will receive a request from an employee, claiming to be disabled for a “reasonable accommodation”—an accommodation which helps a disabled employee perform the essential function of his or her job.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) requires employers to reasonably accommodate disabled employers to avoid a charge of disability discrimination.
Accommodation requests are not uncommon. The question, from the employer’s standpoint, is “Is the requested accommodation reasonable?
What is a “reasonable accommodation”?
A recent decision from the federal Seventh Circuit, which is binding on federal courts in Wisconsin, took an employer-friendly view of the issue—at odds with most other federal Circuits—in the context of employee requests for extended leave.
Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. addressed whether an employer was required to grant an employee’s request for a two to three month leave for recovery from back surgery.
The employer denied the request as unreasonable, terminated the employee and advised the employee to reapply for his position upon his recovery
The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court ruling, in favor of the employer, that the ADA’s definition of “reasonable accommodation” does not include a long-term leave of two to three months. Otherwise, the Court held, the ADA would change from a disability to a medical leave statute.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, it is now the federal law in Wisconsin.
Severson is arguably a huge win for employers, because it limits the scenarios obligating an employer to grant employee requests for lengthy ADA leave made pursuant to the ADA.
For now, an employer presented with a request for an extended period of time off of work (i.e. more than a few days), may be relatively confident in denying the request under the ADA.
Employers in Wisconsin (and Illinois and Indiana) should be still be cautious.
First, the Seventh Circuit’s decision is contrary to the law in most other Circuits which have addressed the issue.
Second, while the Supreme Court refused to hear Severson, it could overrule the decision via another case.
Finally, Severson, as most employment cases, was highly fact intensive. There may be a unique fact set where even the Seventh Circuit might find an extended leave palatable.