In a recent decision in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc. (Sept. 20, 2017), the Seventh Circuit affirmed a district court’s ruling that an employer did not violate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to provide an employee with a long-term medical leave of absence.  Indeed, the court found that “a long-term leave of absence cannot be a reasonable accommodation” under the ADA.

Plaintiff, a former employee of Heartland Woodcraft (“Heartland”), developed chronic back problems and became unable to work.  After exhausting his Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave, he informed Heartland that he needed surgery, which would require him to be out of work for two to three additional months.  Heartland responded that his employment would terminate at the end of his FMLA leave and he could reapply when he was able to return to work.  After recovering from surgery and being cleared to return to work, rather than reapplying, the plaintiff sued, alleging that Heartland failed to reasonably accommodate him under the ADA.  The district court granted summary judgment in favor of Heartland, and Plaintiff appealed.

Affirming the district court’s decision, the Seventh Circuit stressed that the “ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.”  Thus, according to the court, a “reasonable accommodation is expressly limited to those measures that will enable an employee to work.”  The court then stated in vivid terms that “[a]n employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.” (emphasis in original)  And driving the point home, the court added that, “[s]imply put, an extended leave of absence does not give a disabled individual the means to work; it excuses his not working.”

Notably, the court rejected the EEOC’s position that an extended leave of absence may be a reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances.  In its amicus brief in this matter, the EEOC argued that “a long-term medical leave of absence should qualify as a reasonable accommodation when the leave is (1) of a definite, time-limited duration; (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions when he returns.”  But the Seventh Circuit found that the EEOC’s “reading of the statute equates ‘reasonable accommodation’ with ‘effective accommodation,’” an interpretation the Supreme Court has rejected.  The court took issue with the EEOC’s position that the length of the leave is irrelevant in determining the reasonableness of the accommodation, concluding that this would transform the ADA “into a medical-leave statute—in effect, an open-ended extension of the FMLA,” which would be untenable.

While the Seventh Circuit’s decision is indeed notable, employers remain cautioned that circuit courts in other jurisdictions have reached differing conclusions on this issue and, as noted, the EEOC continues to take the position that leaves of absence may constitute reasonable accommodation in certain circumstances.

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Photo of Steven J. Pearlman Steven J. Pearlman

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular…

Steven J. Pearlman is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department and Co-Head of the Whistleblowing & Retaliation Group and the Restrictive Covenants, Trade Secrets & Unfair Competition Group.

Steven’s practice covers the full spectrum of employment law, with a particular focus on defending companies against claims of employment discrimination, retaliation and harassment; whistleblower retaliation; restrictive covenant violations; theft of trade secrets; and wage-and-hour violations. He has successfully tried cases in multiple jurisdictions, and defended one of the largest Illinois-only class actions in the history of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He also secured one of only a few ex parte seizures orders that have been issued under the Defend Trade Secrets Act, and obtained a world-wide injunction in federal litigation against a high-level executive who jumped ship to a competitor.

Reporting to boards of directors, their audit committees, CEOs and in-house counsel, Steven conducts sensitive investigations and has testified in federal court. His investigations have involved complaints of sexual harassment involving C-suite officers; systemic violations of employment laws and company policies; and fraud, compliance failures and unethical conduct.

Steven was recognized as Lawyer of the Year for Chicago Labor & Employment Litigation in the 2023 edition of The Best Lawyers in America. He is a Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers.  Chambers describes Steven as an “outstanding lawyer” who is “very sharp and very responsive,” a “strong advocate,” and an “expert in his field.” Steven was 1 of 12 individuals selected by Compliance Week as a “Top Mind.” Earlier in his career, he was 1 of 5 U.S. lawyers selected by Law360 as a “Rising Star Under 40” in the area of employment law and 1 of “40 Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch” selected by Law Bulletin Publishing Company. Steven is a Burton Award Winner (U.S. Library of Congress) for “Distinguished Legal Writing.”

Steven has served on Law360’s Employment Editorial Advisory Board and is a Contributor to He has appeared on Bloomberg News (television and radio) and Yahoo! Finance, and is regularly quoted in leading publications such as The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has engaged Steven to serve as lead counsel on amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal circuit courts of appeal. He was appointed to serve as a Special Assistant Attorney General for the State of Illinois in employment litigation matters. He has presented with the Solicitor of the DOL, the Acting Chair of the EEOC, an EEOC Commissioner, Legal Counsel to the EEOC and heads of the SEC, CFTC and OSHA whistleblower programs. He is also a member of the Sedona Conference, focusing on trade secret matters.