In James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago, 2013 WL 514097 (7th Cir. Feb. 13, 2013), the Seventh Circuit held that the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") does not require an employer to restore an employee to his or her position if the employee is only able to perform light duty work.
James brought suit alleging Hyatt interfered with his rights under the FMLA and retaliated against him for taking FMLA leave because Hyatt did not bring him back to work when his doctor released him to return on "light duty."
In affirming the district court's dismissal of James' claim, the Seventh Circuit ruled that the FMLA does not require an employer to return an employee to his or her position if the employee cannot perform the essential functions of the job. The court cited its previous decision in Hendricks v. Compass Group, USA, Inc., 496 F.3d 803, 805 (7th Cir. 2007), where it held that, "[t]here is no such thing as 'FMLA light duty.'" Thus, the court found Hyatt never interfered with James' FMLA benefits.
As for his retaliation claim, the court found that James suffered no adverse action. The court reasoned that Hyatt's "refusal" to bring James back on light duty was not a materially adverse action under the FMLA.
James also alleged that Hyatt failed to accommodate his disability as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") – that irrespective of its obligations under the FMLA, Hyatt was required to return him to work on "light duty" as a reasonable accommodation. The court rejected this claim as well, finding that James submitted conflicting medical documentation regarding his ability to return to work and was unresponsive when Hyatt sought clarification. Thus, the court ruled that, even if James had a disability, he never put Hyatt on notice that he was seeking a reasonable accommodation that would permit him to return to work.
The James case is significant because it confirms that the FMLA does not obligate employers to restore employees to something less than full duty. However, the James case also illustrates that, in many cases, the FMLA analysis does necessarily resolve the matter. Instead, the employer also should consider whether the employee is disabled for purposes of the ADA and, if so, whether the employee may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation.