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Supreme Court may decide how much leave is required by the ADA

When an employee has a disability that requires leave from work, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires their employer to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave and hold the employee's job open for their return. More leave may be required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), but the federal circuit courts of appeal have come to different conclusions. Now, a plaintiff has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on whether the ADA mandates additional leave.

Employees can get FMLA leave for a variety of reasons besides their own disability. The leave can be claimed for personal health needs, to care for a sick family member, or to welcome a new baby into the family. The ADA, on the other hand, only applies to care for one's own disability. It doesn't require a specific number of weeks of leave but instead requires employers to accommodate reasonable disability-related requests.

7th Circuit rules the ADA doesn't extend FMLA leave

The plaintiff's case was appealed before the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. The man was an operations manager who had a back impairment. At the end of his 12 weeks of FMLA leave for a wrenched back, he had surgery to resolve the medical issue. However, the surgery required three months' recovery. He was fired and sued, claiming that he was denied a reasonable accommodation.

The appellate court ruled that the ADA might require employers to accommodate short periods of medical leave, but the law does not require multiple months of absence to be tolerated. It ruled the same way in a subsequent case, saying "a multi-month leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable accommodation under the ADA."

EEOC, other circuits disagree

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has long offered different guidance than the 7th Circuit ruling would suggests. It recommends employers determine what is reasonable on a case-by-case basis. In fact, just last August the agency reached a $2 million settlement with UPS because the company had a rigid 12-month cap in place for leave. However, the acting chair of the EEOC acknowledged that months-long leaves are problematic from a legal standpoint.

At least one legal expert says that the 7th Circuit's decision is inconsistent with most other federal circuit courts, as well, and cautions employers not to rely on it. However, all the circuits seem to agree that an indefinite leave generally not be a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

Will the Supreme Court rule that several months of additional leave beyond the FMLA's 12 weeks can be reasonably required? The high court has not yet announced whether it will take the case.

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