Employers do not have an obligation to return employees to light duty assignments under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) before the employee can perform essential job functions, the 7th Circuit ruled in James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago.

Carris James worked as a banquet steward at Chicago’s Hyatt Regency hotel until March 2007 when he was punched in the eye outside of work and he suffered a retinal detachment requiring surgery. 

On April 24, 2007, James gave Hyatt a doctor’s note stating that he could return to “light duty” work on May 10. The following day, James requested FMLA leave, which was applied retroactively. Over the next several months, James provided conflicting information about his ability to return to work, including doctor’s notes saying alternately that he was unable to work at all, that he could return to work with a visual impairment restriction, and that he could return to work with a lifting and bending restriction.

For months, James didn’t answer Hyatt’s repeated requests for clarification. He ultimately returned to his original position in February 2008. The following year, he sued Hyatt for retaliation and interference under the FMLA and discrimination and retaliation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

A district court, however, granted summary judgment to Hyatt. A three-judge panel for the 7th Circuit upheld that decision on Feb. 13, and, with its ruling, gave employers some valuable guidance for dealing with employees on leave.

“This return to work after leave issue is one of those landmines that’s out there, every time someone goes out on extended leave,” says Maria Greco Danaher, a shareholder at Ogletree Deakins. “And the more that we can come up with a consistent, rational roadmap to follow, then the better off we’re going to be as employers.”

No Requirement

James acknowledged that he received the FMLA leave to which he was entitled, but argued that Hyatt violated the law when it did not return him to light duty work following his April 24 doctor’s note. Seeming to bolster this argument was the 6th Circuit’s 2005 ruling in Brumbalough v. Camelot, in which the court ruled that “once an employee submits a statement from her health care provider which indicates that she may return to work, the employer’s duty to reinstate her has been triggered under the FMLA.”

While agreeing with that ruling, the 7th Circuit distinguished between Brumbalough and James’ situation. The FMLA, the court said, requires only that an employer give its workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and that it return the employees to their original jobs if it is medically possible. The April 24 doctor’s note, however, stated that James could perform only light duty work. Moreover, the initial note was contradicted by subsequent paperwork—making it impossible for Hyatt to determine James’ true fitness for work.

“Employers are under no obligation to restore an employee to his or her position if the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job. … We have held that ‘there is no such thing as FMLA light duty,’” the court wrote.

The 7th Circuit also rejected James’ argument that Hyatt retaliated against him following his request for leave, noting that the hotel ultimately returned him to his previous position and granted him two weeks of paid vacation before he started work. 

The court applied similar reasoning to the ADA claim, since James’ job often required him to do heavy lifting, which was specifically restricted by one of his doctor’s notes. “Reassigning such tasks to another employee is not considered a reasonable accommodation when reassignment of the task would equate, essentially, to reassignment of the job itself,” the court ruled.

Furthermore, the 7th Circuit found it unlikely that Hyatt would refuse to make allowances for James’ visual impairment, given that for years it had accommodated his nearsightedness by enlarging the font on his schedules and work assignments.


Exemplary Employer

For employers looking to avoid similar ADA or FMLA claims, Danaher’s advice boils down to three steps: “Give them the paperwork, follow up on the paperwork and then follow up again on the paperwork.”

Hyatt did just that, she says, starting with its decision to provide James with FMLA paperwork immediately upon learning of his injury. The company then repeatedly asked for updates on James’ recovery and fitness for work. Finally, when those updates were not forthcoming, it sought information from James’ doctors.

Jeff Nowak, a partner at Franczek Radelet and author of the firm’s “FMLA Insights” blog, agrees that regular communication is critical for employers, although he advises companies to be cautious when seeking medical information from physicians (see “Risky Request”). 

“In this case, the employer proactively communicated with the employee and was diligent in investigating and documenting the conflicting medical reports about the employee’s fitness for work,” he says. “As a result, it was in the best position to defend itself against the FMLA and ADA claims.”