WEST BEND, Wisc. - Store fixture manufacturer Heartland Woodcraft says it won a ruling that permitted it to terminate an employee who did not return after his medical leave expired.
The ruling, made September 20, 2017, turned on whether or not an employer must extend an employee's time off under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they do not return to work following their leave under the Family & Medical Leave Act.
"The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a significant decision which is helpful to employers in determining whether or not an employer must extend an employee's time off," says a spokesperson for Tristan & Cervantes, which defended Woodland Heartcraft in court.
As described in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No., 15-3754, plaintiff Raymond Severson worked in a physically demanding job and took 12 weeks of leave due to his severe back pain. On his last day of leave, Severson scheduled back surgery requiring an additional two to three more months of time off.
Heartland Woodcraft denied Severson's request to continue his medical leave and terminated his employment, although it invited him to reapply once he was medically cleared for work. Instead of reapplying after he received clearance, Severson filed suit against the Heartland Woodcraft for disability discrimination under the ADA.
Heartland Woodcraft manufactures from two Wisconsin facilities: 110,000 square feet in West Bend, and another 60,000 square feet in Sheboygan, where much of the machining is done, along with engineering, customer service, project management, estimating, fabrication, assembly, and distribution. Severson had been shop superintendent and later was promoted to operations manager, but the company demoted him to second-shift "lead" position, which required more physically demand labor, according to a summary in FindLaw.
Employers who have 50 or more employees are subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), which affords twelve weeks of unpaid leave to employees for family or medical needs. In some circumstances, employees exhaust their medical leave under the FMLA and require more time off. The Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") requires employers to reasonably accommodate a qualified individual with a disability - but in this case, the court determined that time off in addition to FMLA leave was not reasonable as an accommodation.
The 7th Circuit held that the Heartland Woodcraft did not discriminate against Severson, stating, the "ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not medical-leave entitlement."
The court reasoned that an employee who requires long-term medical leave cannot work, and thus, such employee would not be considered a qualified individual under the ADA. Therefore, "a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation."
Tristan & Cervantes advises that employers should still proceed cautiously, since the Court did not hold that the ADA never requires leave as an accommodation, such as when leave is "intermittent."