U.S. Airways v. Barnett

As often happens with serious injuries, the recovery period is hard to predict. In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., 872 F.3d 476 (7th Cir. 2017), Raymond Severson took his full 12 weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. He was addressing his serious back pain. On the last day of his leave, he went through back surgery. He asked for an additional 2-3 months of leave. The company said no and fired him when he did not return to work. The employee then sued for a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Mr. Severson said the company failed to accommodate his need for time off.  Three months later, the plaintiff was cleared to return to work.

The employer was granted summary judgment. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed. Without any explanation, the court decided that Mr. Severson’s request was for “extended” leave. The court did not explain how it came to decide that 2-3 months was extended leave, as opposed to 6-7 months, or 9-10 months.

The court rightly noted that the ADA does not allow for extended leave. But, it did not explain why 3 months would constitute extended leave. The court found that leave involving “multiple” months would be too long. That period of time allows a person not to work, not help him work, said the court.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed an amicus brief. It argued that effective accommodation means reasonable accommodation. The Seventh Circuit disagreed, saying that the Supreme Court said in U.S. Airways v. Barnett, 535 US 391, 122 S.Ct. 1516, 152 L.Ed.2d 589 (2002), that reasonable accommodation does not require that accommodations be effective. In a confusing sentence, the court concluded that “effectiveness is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.” But, to be fair to the Seventh Circuit, the decision in Barnett is confusing. Justice Breyer seems to conflate accommodation with undue hardship. The Justice strains to explain that accommodation needs to be effective, which would render the use of the word “reasonable” superfluous.

In the end, the Seventh Circuit concluded that if the court read the ADA as the EEOC argued, then the ADA would become a medical leave statute. If employees are entitled to extended leave under the ADA, then the ADA becomes a medical leave statute, or an “open-ended” version of the FMLA. At this point, the court has abandoned legal scholarship and now relies on cliches. The court presents no evidence that Congress intended the ADA not to include medical leave. And, indeed, the language of the ADA indicates otherwise. See the decision here.