Bloomberg Law
April 2, 2018, 2:39 PM

Supreme Court Won’t Review Leave as a Disability Accommodation

Patrick Dorrian
Patrick Dorrian

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t review whether a former operations manager at a Wisconsin manufacturer of retail displays should have been allowed to take two to three months off to recover from back surgery.

The unpaid leave would have been in addition to 12 weeks of leave Raymond Severson took prior to having back surgery. The justices’ decision not to hear the case leaves in place a September 2017 ruling by a federal appeals court in Chicago that Heartland Woodcraft Inc. didn’t violate the Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to let Severson take the additional leave.

A ruling by the justices had they taken up the case potentially could have set a maximum amount of leave employers are required to give workers as a job accommodation for a disability and would have applied to all but the smallest private-sector companies. Or it may have embraced the view long-held by the federal agency that enforces the ADA’s job accommodation requirements against private-industry employers that requests for leave beyond that required by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act or the employer’s own leave policy must at least be considered where the additional leave could help keep a disabled employee in the workforce until he’s able to return to work or resume full duties.

“Maximum leave” and similar employer policies violate the ADA in part because they free companies of the obligation to consider accommodation requests on a case-by-case basis, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says.

How long an employee should be allowed to remain on leave to recover from a disabling condition that prevents him from performing his job is a question that has confounded employers. The issue frequently requires companies to negotiate the overlap between the ADA—which requires companies with 15 or more employees to reasonably accommodate a worker’s disability—and the FMLA—which requires employers with 50 or more workers within a 75-mile radius to permit eligible employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to tend to their own and close family members’ serious medical conditions—and often has them seeking help from their attorneys.

Severson argued in his brief seeking Supreme Court review that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in the case conflicts with the positions taken by all four other federal appeals court that have addressed the issue. Heartland countered that any notion of a circuit split was “overblown.”

The case is Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., U.S., No. 17-01001, certiorari denied 4/2/18.