Human Resources News & Insights

New case reveals one fewer FMLA complication for HR

When it comes to employees out on FMLA who request light duty in order to return to work, employers would do well to follow this company’s example.

Carris James, a banquet steward at a Hyatt in Chicago, had a vision problem. After 22 years on the job, James was involved in an altercation outside of work where he was, unsurprisingly, punched in the eye.

He then developed a retinal detachment, underwent corrective surgery and had to miss work to recover. The company provided James with FMLA paperwork and approved him for leave for his time out of work.

James’ doctor submitted a note saying James could return for light duty at some point, but that his condition, which apparently was an issue before he got punched in the face, might be permanent.

Hyatt continued to ask for and receive updates on James’ condition, including that he could return to work with lifting and bending restrictions, which meant that he wouldn’t be able to continue as a steward. Hyatt refused James’ request for light duty.

No FMLA interference

James then sued Hyatt, claiming that the company had interfered with his rights under the FMLA by not granting him light duty.

No way, said the court.

While FMLA law states that employers are required to return staffers to the position they held before leave (or an equivalent one), nowhere does the law require firms to offer light duty to workers so they can return to work before they exhaust their leave.

Maria Greco Danaher, posting on the Employment Law Matters blog, writes on why the case is a great model for employees facing issues with the FMLA:

… once the company learned that James’ absence was medically related, it provided FMLA paperwork. During James’ leave, Hyatt requested medical updates in an attempt to understand if and when James could return to work, and to determine the extent of his medical impairment. When those updates were not forthcoming, and rather than make assumptions based on contradictory reports, Hyatt requested – directly from the medical provider – clarification of James’ medical condition, and included return-to-work certification forms as well as a detailed job description to allow the doctor to determine whether James could return to his position with or without accommodation under the ADA.

And Jon Hyman, writing on the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, has some sound advice regarding HR’s other “favorite” employment law and light duty:

Before denying light duty to an employee returning from FMLA leave, you must consider whether the ADA requires the light duty as a reasonable accommodation. If you have light duty available, and do not have to create a light duty position to accommodate the employee, the ADA will likely require the consideration of temporary light duty as a reasonable accommodation.

The case is James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago.

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