Employer Has No Obligation to Provide “Light Duty” Assignment Under FMLA or ADA

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

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.


Written by:

Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C. on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.


JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.