This week, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that a “multimonth leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation” under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In doing so, the court rejected longstanding guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that a long-term medical leave is a reasonable accommodation when the leave is (1) definite and time-limited (not open ended); (2) requested in advance; and (3) likely to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions on return. Noting that under the EEOC’s position “the length of leave does not matter,” the court characterized it as an “open-ended extension” of leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act.

In Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., the plaintiff had taken FMLA leave for serious back pain that was treated non-surgically. Two weeks before his leave was to expire, he contacted the employer and told that he was scheduled for surgery on his last day of leave. He explained that typical recovery time was two months and asked the employer to extend his leave.

The day before the surgery, the employer told Mr. Severson that his employment would end when his FMLA leave expired, but told him that he could reapply when he recovered from his surgery and was medically cleared to work. Mr. Severson was ultimately cleared to work without restriction a little more than three months after his surgery (total of about six months out of work). Rather than reapply for employment, Mr. Severson sued Heartland for failing to make reasonable accommodations to him under the ADA. The district court granted summary judgment to Heartland, and Mr. Severson appealed.

The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” — Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.

In holding that Heartland did not violate the ADA, the court said, “The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a medical-leave entitlement.” At its core, the ADA protects “qualified individual[s]” who are able to perform their job’s essential functions. “An employee who needs long-term medical leave cannot work and thus is not a ‘qualified individual’ under the ADA.” According to the court, employees’ legal entitlement to medical leave comes from the FMLA, not the ADA.

The Seventh Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule that a multi-month leave is not “reasonable” under the ADA. Previously, the Eighth and Tenth circuits had suggested that a six-month leave was not reasonable. But the Seventh Circuit goes further by holding that an employee who cannot work for multiple months is not covered by the ADA and, instead, must seek leave through the FMLA.

This is significant for employers because it suggests that they may no longer have to jointly consider FMLA and ADA implications when faced with a long-term leave request—an often difficult task.

That said, employers should still be cautious. First, the decision applies only in the Seventh Circuit states of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin (where Heartland is located). Even in those states, requests for leave as a reasonable accommodation must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and employers should engage in the interactive process to determine whether a reasonable accommodation could allow an employee to work. The Seventh Circuit panel recognized that, in appropriate circumstances, “intermittent time off or a short leave of absence—say a couple of days or even a couple of weeks”—could be a reasonable accommodation akin to a part-time or modified work schedule.

Moreover, the EEOC still takes the position that a time-limited medical leave request is a reasonable accommodation. The day after the Seventh Circuit issued its opinion, the EEOC announced that it had sued an employer in Illinois for denying an employee’s accommodation request for a few additional weeks of leave to have cancer-related surgery. And several other federal appeals courts have recognized multi-month leaves as reasonable accommodations.