No Violation of FMLA to Refuse Request for Light Duty Before Return to Work

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Employers sometimes offer light duty work to employees who are recuperating from injuries, illnesses, or other medical conditions, when they cannot yet perform the essential functions of their jobs.  Employers may have a variety of reasons to offer light duty - to reduce their workers' compensation costs, or to accommodate a possible disability, for example - but an employee on a Family and Medical Leave Act leave of absence is not entitled under the FMLA to light duty work before the employee is qualified to return to their previous positions. 

In James v. Hyatt Regency,* the plaintiff argued that his current employer violated the FMLA because it did not promptly reinstate him to return to work.  While out on a FMLA leave of absence, the plaintiff submitted five doctor's notes to Hyatt, which he characterized as "physician releases."  However, only one of the notes released the plaintiff to return to work, and even then it released him to light duty.  Instead of creating a light duty job, the employer gave the plaintiff more leave of absence - months more leave of absence.  The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the plaintiff's argument that employers are obligated under the FMLA to restore an employee to his or her active employment, in a light duty position, when the employee is released by a physician for light duty work, when the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job.

There is no such thing as "FMLA light duty." At least not yet.

* James v. Hyatt Regency, Case No. 12-1511 (7th Cir. Feb. 13, 2013).

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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