Light Duty Only? You Can Tell Employee on FMLA Leave to Stay Home

May 10, 2013

The 7th Circuit recently held that an employer didn’t violate the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) when it granted an employee his full 12-week FMLA leave entitlement and reinstated him only after the leave ended and he was fully capable of performing his job duties, despite his claim that he should have been allowed to return to work earlier.

Facts

Carris James worked for Hyatt Regency Chicago as a banquet steward, a position that required him to lift and move objects around the banquet and service area. He had vision problems, which Hyatt accommodated by increasing the print size of his work assignments and schedules. In March 2007, he injured his eye and was forced to miss work. Hyatt learned that his absence was attributable to a medical issue and gave him FMLA leave information.

On April 24, James provided Hyatt’s HR coordinator with a doctor’s note stating that he could return to “light duty” on May 10. The note didn’t list any specific restrictions, nor did it say how long he had to be on light duty. The following day, Hyatt granted his request for FMLA leave for the required 12-week period.

James’ 12-week FMLA leave ended on July 13. Hyatt’s collective bargaining agreement entitled him to remain on FMLA leave for up to one year. On August 2, he submitted a medical release stating he was allowed to return to work with a note that he was visually impaired. However, Hyatt didn’t allow him to return to work because he continued to provide medical paperwork that stated he either couldn’t work in any capacity or could return to work with restrictions of “no heavy lifting or excessive bending.”

On February 17, 2008, James returned to work in the same position, on the same shift, and at the same seniority level. He testified that he was treated fairly during the process but alleged that he was left on FMLA leave too long. He argued that Hyatt failed to promptly return him to work after he submitted the physicians’ “releases.” Specifically, he asserted claims of retaliation and interference with his rights under the FMLA.

FMLA Particulars

The FMLA makes it unlawful for employers to interfere with, restrain, or deny employees’ exercise of their rights under the Act. Further, employers are prohibited from retaliating against employees who exercise or attempt to exercise FMLA rights. An employee on FMLA leave has the right to be restored to the same job or a position equivalent to the job he had before he took leave. However, if the employee cannot perform an essential function of his original position because of a physical or mental condition, he has no right to restoration to a different position.

To prevail on an FMLA interference claim, the employee must show (1) he was eligible for FMLA protection, (2) his employer was covered by the FMLA, (3) he was entitled to take leave under the Act, (4) he provided sufficient notice of his intent to take leave, and (5) his employer denied him FMLA benefits to which he was entitled.

No Need to Restore Employee Who Can’t Perform Essential Functions

James’ claims eventually ended up before the 7th Circuit. Ruling on the issue for the first time, the court held that an employer doesn’t violate the FMLA if it refuses to reinstate an employee who is on FMLA leave if he cannot perform the essential job functions. The court found that Hyatt couldn’t have violated James’ FMLA rights by not returning him to work on April 24, 2007, because his own physician stated that he couldn’t return to work until May 10, 2007. Further, James provided disability paperwork and doctors’ certifications that he couldn’t work in any capacity and required disability benefits.

The court found that in such cases, the FMLA “only requires that an employer permit an employee to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for illness and return to his prior post or an equivalent position.” Employers “are under no obligation to restore an employee to his . . . position if [he] is unable to perform the essential functions of the job.” Moreover, according to the court, “There is no such thing as ‘FMLA light duty.’”James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago, 707 F.3d 775, 781 (7th Cir., 2013).

Bottom Line

This case serves as a reminder that employers may face FMLA claims even after granting FMLA benefits to employees. Be diligent in investigating and documenting medical reports from employees, especially when the reports are conflicting. As this case shows, documentation is vital in protecting your company from FMLA claims.

This article was featured in the May 2013 issue of the Wisconsin Employment Law Letter, which is edited by Attorney Timothy Edwards and published by BLR®—Business & Legal Resources. Reproduced here with the permission of BLR®—Business & Legal Resources.

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