Employer’s Refusal to Reinstate Worker After 12-Month Leave Ends in $315K Settlement

An employer has agreed to pay $315,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging it allowed an employee to take about 12 months of medical leave but then fired him once he was able to return to work, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The employee was out of work for nearly a year, according to court documents. Once he was cleared to return, the employer, S&C Electric Company, suggested he retire. When he declined, it fired him, according to a court’s order. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued on his behalf, alleging disability discrimination, but the employer argued that because he had been out for so long, he was no longer entitled to the ADA’s protections. “Nonsense,” the court said, clearing the case for trial.

In the April 21 press release announcing the settlement, Julianne Bowman, district director of EEOC’s Chicago office, said “the company disregarded the employee’s releases to return to work and failed to seek additional information to determine in greater detail what his capacities were.”

Employers have long sought guidance on just how much leave the ADA requires, but employment law attorneys say there’s no firm answer. The law requires that employers assess each request individually and consider its reasonableness in light of the affected role, duties and other factors.

A 2017 ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals shifted the landscape when it held in Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., No. 15-3754 (7th Cir. Sept. 20, 2017) that a multimonth leave of absence could be reasonable under the ADA. That ruling still stands (as the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to rehear it) but it applies only in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, and employment law attorneys say other rulings have started to chip away at it.

And even though the S&C Electric case may have been subject to Severson, the district court judge said the reasonableness of the employee’s leave wasn’t relevant. The employee had received long-term medical leave, but sought to return to work, the judge wrote. “Unlike the [plaintiff in Severson] he was ready, willing and able to return to his position without any accommodation.”

The court went further, noting that the employer might have been in the clear to deem the plaintiff’s leave need unreasonable and fire him earlier. But it opted not to and instead waited until he was cleared to return to terminate him. He wasn’t fired for requesting more leave; “he was terminated for requesting to return to work,” the court said.

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