High Court Arguably Settles Post-FMLA Medical Leave Case by Doing Nothing

Often, what the U.S. Supreme Court does not do has as much impact at what it does. A case in point is the Court’s refusal to review a Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals decision that employers are not obligated to extend a leave of absence or hold an employee’s job open following expiration of a Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave. By declining the case, the Court signals that such extensions cannot be considered reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In the original case, an employee took FMLA leave due to a back injury, then requested several additional months of leave to allow him to recover. The employer rejected the request and terminated the employee, encouraging him to reapply for employment when he recovered. The employee sued, claiming that the employer had failed to provide reasonable accommodation under the ADA by denying the request.

The district court ruled in favor of the employer, and the Seventh Circuit upheld the decision. In its ruling, the Seventh Circuit court concluded that leave requests beyond FMLA are not required under the ADA. The ADA defines reasonable accommodation as accommodation that allows an otherwise qualified employee with a disability to perform the essential functions of a job. In the case under review, the proposed accommodation would not give the employee a means to perform his job, but rather a reason not to perform his job.

One point of interest is that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed an amicus brief in support of the employee. The EEOC argued that a fixed period of post-FMLA leave can qualify as reasonable accommodation, and that employers have the burden of proving that the additional leave poses a hardship. The Seventh Circuit rejected the EEOC’s argument, finding that if “employees are entitled to extended time off as a reasonable accommodation, the ADA would be transformed into a medical leave statute — in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA.”

With the Supreme Court decision to decline a review, the original ruling stands as the law of the Seventh Circuit and may persuade other circuits to follow suit. Nonetheless, the decision is not a guarantee for employers outside the Seventh Circuit. The issue may arise again as similar cases reach the appellate court level.

If you need help evaluating long-term or indefinite leave requests or other FMLA matters, please contact us. We’re happy to help.

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