Sometimes the actions a court doesn’t take can have a very big impact. The Supreme Court’s April 2, 2018 decision not to review a recent Seventh Circuit ruling is just one of the cases.
In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., a widely-publicized decision relating to the availability of extended leave as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Seventh Circuit held that a two-to-three month leave of absence, following the exhaustion of an employee’s leave entitlement under Family and Medical Leave Act, was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA. In doing so, the Seventh Circuit characterized the ADA as an “anti-discrimination” statute, as opposed to a “leave entitlement” statute. The Severson decision was recognized as a major victory for employers in the Seventh Circuit, who have long been forced to navigate the ADA’s mandate of leave as a reasonable accommodation with little concrete guidance regarding the duration of leave to be provided. Although the Seventh Circuit’s decision made clear that under certain circumstances, leave may still be an appropriate reasonable accommodation under the ADA, it nonetheless provides a level of clarity regarding employers’ obligations under the ADA that did not previously exist at the federal appellate level.
Of course, the Seventh Circuit’s decision would have been of little value if it were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. In his Petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Severson asked the Court to resolve the issue of whether there exists a per se rule that a finite leave of absence cannot be a “reasonable accommodation” under the ADA. In response, Heartland Woodcraft framed the issue as one of whether an individual who requires a multi-month leave following three months of FMLA leave can be considered a “qualified individual” under the ADA, in light of the fact that the extended leave would not enable the employee to perform the essential functions of his or her job.
Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision and, in doing so, at least for the moment, leaves in place the Seventh Circuit’s finding that the ADA does not, as a matter of course, require employers to provide a multi-month leave following the exhaustion of FMLA leave. The Tenth and Eleventh Circuits have adopted similar positions in ADA continuous leave accommodation cases. See our blog posts of those decisions here and here.