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Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 20, 2017

Raymond Severson, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
Heartland Woodcraft, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued September 12, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. No. 14-CV-1141 - Lynn Adelman, Judge.

          Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and Easterbrook and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          SYKES, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         From 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.

         Severson 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.

         We 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).

         With 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.

         I. Background

         Severson 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.

         Severson 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.

         Earlier 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.

         On 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 surgery date.

         Schroeder 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 the ...


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