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Federal appeals court limits extended FMLA leave accommodations

If you are injured or ill and can't immediately return to work after using all of your FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act) leave, can your employer fire you? A federal appeals court ruling indicates that your employer might be required to grant you an accommodation of some extra days or weeks, but not two months or more.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit appears to contradict the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's policy of taking on employers that denied extended leave requests. Regular readers will recall that we wrote about a recent UPS settlement in which the package delivery company agreed to revise its leave policy that called for the termination of employees who could not return to work after a 12-week FMLA leave.

The EEOC position has been that similar policies violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana) heard the case of a man with back problems who worked for Wisconsin-based Heartland Woodcraft. He used his 12 weeks of FMLA leave, but requested two to three more months of leave to recuperate from back surgery ordered by his doctor.

The company denied the request and said he would be fired when his leave expired, but that he could reapply for a job once he was again healthy.

The accommodation he requested under the ADA wasn't reasonable, the court said, instead holding that a reasonable accommodation is one in which the employee is able to perform the essential functions of his or her job. The former Heartland employee was unable to work at all when his FMLA leave expired.

A lawyer for the employer predicted that other courts will adopt the Seventh Circuit's holding that requests for leave accommodations of more than two months are not reasonable. He also predicted that the case will not prevent employment law attorneys from representing clients in similar FMLA cases in which the requests are for less than two months.

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