Benefits & Compensation News

Denying light duty: 4 steps to avoid legal liability under FMLA, ADA

Refusing an employee’s request for a light duty assignment when they’re coming off of FMLA- or ADA-protected leave is tricky. But if you’re going to do it, here’s the blueprint for avoiding legal liability.

Carris James was a banquet steward at a Hyatt hotel in Chicago when he began to have vision problems. After 22 years on the job, he was involved in an altercation outside of work where he was punched in the eye.

James suffered a retinal detachment and had to undergo eye surgery, and miss work to recuperate.

When Hyatt learned his absence was due to a medical condition, it did the smart thing and provided him with FMLA paperwork.

James’ physician returned the paperwork confirming the need for leave, but doc also stated James could return to light duty work just a few weeks after his surgery. Specifically, the doc said James could work with lifting and bending restrictions.

Hyatt claimed those restrictions were essential functions of his job, so it couldn’t return him to his steward position. As a result, the hotel denied his light duty request. But the hotel did allow him to remain on FMLA leave.

James did eventually return to his steward position about 10 months after his injury (a collective bargaining agreement entitled him to 12 months of FMLA leave). But he sued Hyatt anyway for FMLA interference and for failing to accommodate his light duty request under the ADA.

Light duty not an FMLA requirement

In court, James argued his FMLA rights had been interfered with because Hyatt didn’t reinstate him after he provided a notice from his physician that he could return under a light duty assignment.

The court quickly shot down that argument. It said under the FMLA, an employer is only required to reinstate an employee returning from medical leave to the same position he or she held at the time FMLA leave began — or an equivalent position.

There is no such thing as FMLA light duty, the court ruled.

Couldn’t perform essential functions

The court also shot down James’ ADA claim. Under the law, a disabled employee is entitled to a reasonable accommodation if he or she — even while under an accommodation — can perform the essential functions of their job.

But the court said since James’ doc submitted paperwork that restricted him from performing two essential functions of his job (lifting and bending), Hyatt was within its rights to deny his light duty request.

Allowing him to come back would’ve essentially required a complete reassignment, which wouldn’t be a reasonable accommodation, the court ruled.

What the company did well

When it comes to facing medical-related leaves of absence and light duty requests, companies would do well to follow Hyatt’s example.

Four steps saved the company from legal liability:

  1. It provided FMLA paperwork as soon as it learned James’ absence was medical-related
  2. The company received a date from James’ physician of when he could return to work
  3. It collected information on the extent of his medical impairment and what his limitations in his job would be, and
  4. Hyatt used all of that information to determine whether a reasonable light duty accommodation could be made.

When FMLA and ADA overlap

Unfortunately, when it comes to light duty requests from employees out on FMLA leave, the solution isn’t as simple as saying, “Well, the FMLA doesn’t require light duty, so we can deny the request.”

Many times the ADA will require that a light duty accommodation be made. Whether an employee is on FMLA leave or just coming off of it, the smart thing for employers to do is enter the “interactive process” to see if the employee on leave can still do his or her old job with some type of reasonable accommodation.

If a temporarily lightened workload doesn’t cause a hardship for the employer, it’s almost certainly obligated to accommodate a disabled worker under the ADA.

A worst-case scenario

In some worst-case scenarios, an employee may not be ready to return to work after exhausting all of his or her FMLA leave. When this happens, some employers may consider terminating the worker as their best course of action.

But tread carefully in these scenarios. Again, the employer must first engage in the interactive process to determine if an employee is entitled to some form of a reasonable accommodation — which can include additional leave time.

If after the interactive process it’s determined a reasonable accommodation can’t be given, termination may be acceptable. But in order to steer clear of any legal trouble when deciding to terminate the worker, it’s wise for employers to be ready to show one of these would result from keeping the person on staff:

  • losses in productivity because at least some of the employee’s work is being completed by less-effective workers
  • the added workload on the other workers is causing a burden on them – i.e. they’re having to work overtime or are suffering from burnout
  • the work being conducted is lower quality
  • revenue is being lost as a result of the worker’s accommodation or extended leave of absence
  • a decrease in customers or customer satisfaction
  • an increased burden on management staff to find stand-in workers, and
  • lower employee morale.

Cite: James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago

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