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No Such Thing as “Light Duty” Return to Work under FMLA and ADA


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By Patrick W. Ogilvy

The U. S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has determined there is no obligation under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for an employer to return an employee to work in a “light duty” capacity when the employee is unable to return to the essential functions of his or her job.    

Vision problems
A large hotel in downtown Chicago hired a banquet steward in 1985.  At the time he applied, the banquet steward noted on his application he had a vision problem, correctable with eyeglasses and magnifying glasses. The hotel accommodated his condition by providing his work assignments and schedules in a larger print size.  The banquet steward performed his job responsibilities, which included maintaining the cleanliness of the hotel’s banquet and other food-service areas and transporting food and equipment, and required lifting pots and pans and transporting garbage cans, for over 20 years without any issues.

In 2007, the banquet steward was involved in an altercation outside of work in which he was punched in the eye, causing a retinal detachment requiring corrective surgery.  The banquet steward took a leave of absence from his position with the hotel for the surgery and in order to recuperate.  Once the hotel learned the banquet steward’s absence was due to a medical issue, it provided him with FMLA leave information.  Over the next several months, the banquet steward provided the hotel with various notes from his doctor with differing and contradictory information regarding the banquet steward’s ability to return to work.  For instance, within a month from his surgery, the first note from the banquet steward’s doctor stated he could return to “light duty” work.  The day after providing the note, however, the banquet steward requested FMLA leave, which the hotel granted.

Next, the banquet steward provided the hotel with disability benefit paperwork representing he was unable to work in any capacity.  Around the same time, the banquet steward also provided an FMLA certification form stating the same thing.  Shortly thereafter, the banquet steward’s doctor provided a release allowing him to return to work with a restriction of being “visually impaired,” but the hotel did not allow the banquet steward to return to work with restrictions.  About a month later, a different doctor provided a note saying the banquet steward could return with the restriction of “no heaving lifting or excessive bending,” but no reference to “visual impairment.”  The hotel attempted to contact the banquet steward several times to obtain more information on the nature of the restrictions and the conflicting paperwork, but did not receive a response.  

After several months, the hotel contacted the banquet steward’s first doctor directly, providing a return to work certification form and a job analysis for the banquet steward’s position.  The doctor responded that the banquet steward could return to work, but could not complete any task requiring vision better than 20/200.  

The hotel then met with the banquet steward, who returned to work in the same position, shift, and seniority level as before his leave of absence.  However, the banquet steward sued for retaliation and interference with his rights under the FMLA and discrimination and retaliation under the ADA.

Seeing ahead
The Seventh Circuit recognized the banquet steward’s case was unique because he did not contend the hotel denied him benefits; instead, he contended the hotel left him on FMLA leave too long by not promptly returning him to work after his submission of the first “return to work” note releasing him to “light duty” work.  The court rejected this claim because an employer does not have a duty under the FMLA to return an employee to his or her position when unable to perform an essential function of the job.   In other words, an employee does not have the right under FMLA to return to “light duty” work, and accordingly the banquet steward’s first release note was not sufficient.  Further, the court also noted the banquet steward’s conflicting notes and other paperwork, where at various times he was apparently unable to work in any capacity, and the banquet steward’s failure to provide the hotel with additional information when requested.

In fact, the court found the hotel did everything it could to try to return the banquet steward to work.  The hotel’s human resources manager attempted to reach the banquet steward several times to clarify the conflicting documents he submitted.  The hotel then reached out directly to the banquet steward’s doctor, and after receiving a response, met with the banquet steward to discuss his return.  Once the hotel had clarification on the banquet steward’s condition, it returned him to work at his prior position.  Therefore, the hotel did not violate the FMLA or the ADA.

Takeaway
Employers do not have a duty to return an employee to work after an FMLA leave of absence until the employee has clearly been released in a manner allowing him or her to perform all of the essential functions of his or her job.  Accordingly, employers should take an active role in communicating with the employee and his or her doctor to determine the true nature of the employee’s condition and any restrictions to determine whether the employee is able to perform those job functions.

Read the case here.

 

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