By David J. Rowland and Megan P. Toth
Seyfarth Synopsis: The Eleventh Circuit is the next to find a long-term leave of absence is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
Just a few months after a recent and definitive decision by the Seventh Circuit that multi-month leaves of absence, even those that are definite in term and sought in advance, are not required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Eleventh Circuit has issued a similar opinion. This decision may signal a growing trend that courts are attempting to curb the abuse of long-term leaves of absence under the ADA that has been rampant and debilitating to employers for many years.
In the recent Eleventh Circuit case, Billups v. Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, the plaintiff injured his shoulder at work and took Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. He was not able to have corrective surgery during this time, so under the employers medical leave policy, he was granted another three-month medical leave. However, at the end of this period — a total of six months of leave — the employee was still not medically able to return to work. He told the employer that he had a doctors appoint in a month and would likely be released to work in six weeks, but it was unclear whether he would have any restrictions at that time. Thus, the employer terminated the plaintiff’s employment and he sued, alleging failure by the employer to provide additional leave as an ADA reasonable accommodation.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim on summary judgment. The plaintiff acknowledged that case precedent says that employers are not required to provide indefinite leaves. However, he argued that these prior decisions involved situations where employees suffered from chronic medical conditions that could continue indefinitely. In this case, the plaintiff contended that an unspecified leave was reasonable because there was a projected end date and once concluded, his medical condition would be resolved without the potential need for additional leave.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected this argument finding that even though the plaintiff would eventually recover, his request was essentially an “open-ended request” for leave of a sufficient time to recover, which is not reasonable under the ADA. The Court also noted that the employer did not violate the ADA because it already provided six months of leave and the plaintiff inarguably could not perform the essential functions of his job at the time of his termination, with or without a reasonable accommodation and therefore he was not a qualified individual. Thus, the court found that regardless of the nature of his underlying medical condition and his projected but uncertain recovery, the employer was not required to provide continued long-term leave.
It appears that the Seventh Circuit is not the lone-ranger in its attempt to invalidate the EEOC’s historic and strongly advocated position that long-term leaves are required “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA. If other circuits continue to follow suit, employers may no longer have a legal obligation to provide lengthy post-FMLA leaves of absence, without the need to justify the denial based on specific business needs. This case also demonstrates the importance of requesting updated medical information from employees nearing the end of FMLA or other medical leave periods.
If an employee cannot medically substantiate that they can return to work close to the expiration of their FMLA leave, employers may have greater legal flexibility in determining whether or not to accommodate the request. While employers should be aware of this apparently growing trend and may choose to adjust their leave and accommodation approaches accordingly, they still must approach long-term and indefinite leave requests very carefully as there are conflicting decisions from other circuits and the EEOC’s position will remain unchanged unless the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately sides with the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits.
If you have any questions regarding this area or need assistance evaluating whether to grant or deny long-term or indefinite leave requests, please contact the authors, your Seyfarth Attorney or a member of the Firm’s Absence Management and Accommodations Team.