September 12, 2016
from the United States District Court for the Eastern
District of Wisconsin. No. 14-CV-1141 - Lynn Adelman, Judge.
WOOD, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and Sykes, Circuit Judges.
2006 to 2013, Raymond Severson worked for Heartland
Woodcraft, Inc., a fabricator of retail display fixtures. The
work was physically demanding. In early June 2013, Severson
took a 12-week medical leave under the Family Medical Leave
Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et
seq., to deal with serious back pain. On the last day of
his leave, he underwent back surgery, which required that he
remain off of work for another two or three months.
asked Heartland to continue his medical leave, but by then he
had exhausted his FMLA entitlement. The company denied his
request and terminated his employment, but invited him to
reapply when he was medically cleared to work. About three
months later, Severson's doctor lifted all restrictions
and cleared him to resume work, but Severson did not reapply.
Instead he sued Heartland alleging that it had discriminated
against him in violation of the Americans with Disabilities
Act ("ADA" or "the Act"), 42 U.S.C.
§§ 12101 et seq., by failing to provide a
reasonable accommodation-namely, a three-month leave of
absence after his FMLA leave expired. The district court
awarded summary judgment to Heartland and Severson appealed.
affirm. The ADA is an antidiscrimination statute, not a
medical-leave entitlement. The Act forbids discrimination
against a "qualified individual on the basis of
disability." Id. § 12112(a). A
"qualified individual" with a disability is a
person who, "with or without reasonable accommodation,
can perform the essential functions of the employment
position." Id. § 12111(8). So defined, the
term "reasonable accommodation" is expressly
limited to those measures that will enable the employee to
work. An employee who needs long-term medical leave
cannot work and thus is not a "qualified
individual" under the ADA. Byrne v. Avon Prods.,
Inc., 328 F.3d 379, 381 (7th Cir. 2003).
support from the EEOC, Severson urges us to retreat from or
curtail our decision in Byrne. We decline to do so.
Byrne is sound and we reaffirm it: A multimonth
leave of absence is beyond the scope of a reasonable
accommodation under the ADA.
has suffered from back pain since 2005. In 2010 he was
diagnosed with back myelopathy caused by impaired functioning
and degenerative changes in his back, neck, and spinal cord.
Typically Severson's back condition did not hamper his
ability to work. But at times he experienced severe
flare-ups, making it hard (and sometimes impossible) for him
to walk, bend, lift, sit, stand, move, and work.
began working for Heartland in 2006. Over time he was
promoted from supervisor to shop superintendent to operations
manager. He performed poorly in this last position, so
Heartland relieved him of his duties and moved him to a
second-shift "lead" position. According to the job
description, an employee in this position performs manual
labor in the production area of the plant, operates and
troubleshoots production machinery, performs minor repairs as
necessary, maintains the building, and frequently lifts
materials and product weighing 50 pounds or more. Heartland
notified Severson of the demotion in a meeting on June 5,
2013. He accepted it but never worked in his new assignment.
that same day, Severson wrenched his back at home,
aggravating his preexisting condition and leaving him
demonstrably uncomfortable. He left work early due to the
pain and later requested and received FMLA leave retroactive
to June 5. Over the summer months, Severson submitted
periodic notes from his doctor informing Heartland that he
had multiple herniated and bulging discs in his lumbar spine
and was unable to work until further notice. His doctor
treated him with steroid injections, to little effect. During
this time period, Doug Lawrence, Heartland's general
manager, and Jennifer Schroeder, the human resources manager,
remained in regular phone and email contact with Severson and
approved his requests for continuation of his FMLA leave.
August 13 Severson called Schroeder and told her that his
condition had not improved and he would undergo disc
decompression surgery on August 27. He explained that the
typical recovery time for this surgery was at least two
months. He requested an extension of his medical leave. But
he had already exhausted his FMLA entitlement; the maximum
12-week leave would expire on August 27, his scheduled
did not talk with Severson again until August 26. In a phone
call that day, she and Lawrence told Severson that his
employment with Heartland would end when his FMLA leave
expired on August 27. Schroeder invited him to reapply with