Employers often assign light duty to employees who are returning to work after recuperating from illnesses or injuries. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has held, however, that neither the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) nor the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) creates an obligation for an employer to provide light duty work to an individual who is unable—with or without accommodation—to return to the essential functions of his job. James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago, No. 1:09-cv-07873, (7th Cir. February 13, 2013).
Carris James began his employment with the Hyatt Regency Chicago in 1985 as a banquet steward, responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of the banquet and food service areas, which included lifting pots and pans, and transporting trash containers around those areas. At that time, James informed Hyatt of his vision problem, which was correctable with eyeglasses and magnifying glasses. Hyatt accommodated James by increasing the print size of his work assignments and schedule.
In March 2007, James was punched in the eye during a non-work-related incident, and developed a retinal detachment for which he underwent surgery in the following month. When Hyatt’s human resources department learned that James’ absence was related to a medical issue, it provided information to James regarding FMLA leave. “As required under the FMLA, Hyatt’s policies provide for twelve weeks of job-protected leave for eligible employees.” On April 24, 2007, James’ physician, Dr. Scott, stated that James could return to “light duty” on May 10, but did not say for how long James would require that light duty assignment. On April 25, James requested FMLA leave, which was applied retroactively to include James’ prior absences.
On May 9, 2007, James provided to Hyatt additional paperwork that indicated that James was “unable to work in any capacity.” James subsequently received disability benefits based upon that information. In addition, on May 11, James submitted a medical certification to Hyatt stating that his condition could possibly lead to permanent incapacity.
James’ 12 weeks of FMLA ended on July 13, 2007, but the collective bargaining agreement between the union and Hyatt provided job-protected leave for up to one year from his original absence. In August, James submitted various conflicting paperwork to Hyatt, including one release that stated that he could return to work although “visually impaired,” and others in which Dr. Scott continued to represent that James was incapable of working in any capacity.
On September 25, James faxed a note to Hyatt from another doctor who stated that James could return to work, with lifting and bending restrictions, which would have precluded James from returning to his banquet steward position. Following that, Hyatt attempted to contact James seeking additional information, but no clarification was provided until January 2008, when Hyatt’s Workers’ Compensation and Safety Manager sent a letter directly to Dr. Scott, enclosing a return to work certification form, as well as a job analysis for the banquet steward position. Dr. Scott responded, stating that James could return to work, but could not complete any task that required better than 20/200 vision. Hyatt then met with James and scheduled a return to work in the same position, shift, and seniority level as before James’ medical leave.
In 2009, James filed a lawsuit, claiming that Hyatt had interfered with his FMLA leave and had discriminated against him under the ADA by failing to allow him to return to work on light duty in May 2007. The lower court’s decision to grant summary judgment in favor of Hyatt on both claims was upheld by the Seventh Circuit on appeal.
First, the court quoted the language of the FMLA stating that “if an employee cannot perform an essential function of [his] original position because of a physical or mental condition, the employee has no right to restoration to a different position under the FMLA.” While the FMLA requires an employer to restore an employee to the position held at the time the FMLA leave began, or to an “equivalent” position, that law does not require an employer to restore an employee to a light duty position (which clearly is not an equivalent), simply to allow him or her to return prior to the expiration of the leave time allowed.
Next, the court addressed James’ claim that Hyatt had failed to accommodate him by pointing out that Hyatt had accommodated James’ visual impairment throughout James’ employment, beginning in 1985. It also pointed out that the “conditional” and, at times, contradictory releases being provided by James, along with the application for disability benefits which stated that James was unable to work in any capacity, did not provide information to Hyatt sufficient for the company to understand the true nature of James’ condition, or to formulate or implement a reasonable accommodation.
This case provides a road map to employers faced with the increasingly frequent situation in which there are both FMLA and ADA issues. First, once the company learned that James’ absence was medically related, it provided FMLA paperwork. During James’ leave, Hyatt requested medical updates in an attempt to understand if and when James could return to work, and to determine the extent of his medical impairment. When those updates were not forthcoming, rather than make assumptions based on contradictory reports, Hyatt requested—directly from the medical provider—clarification of James’ medical condition, and included return-to-work certification forms as well as a detailed job description to allow the doctor to determine whether James could return to his position with or without accommodation under the ADA. It was the company’s action that ultimately led to James’ return to his position, and the company’s considered and persistent attention to the issues that led to a successful result in this case.