Does the FMLA Provide for a”Light Duty” Return to Work?

The Seventh Circuit recently addressed the interplay of FMLA and “light duty” restrictions in James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago (7th Cir., 2013).   In James, the plaintiff suffered from a visual condition and subsequent eye injury that prompted surgery and an associated request for Family Medical Leave (FMLA).   After his 12 weeks of FMLA expired, the employee requested to return to work in a light duty capacity that would eliminate some essential functions of his position.  When the employer could not accommodate his request, the employee nonetheless remained on leave based upon the terms of his union’s collective bargaining agreement.  Ultimately, the employee returned to work but still sued under the FMLA, contending that the employer failed to promptly reinstate him in accordance with his physician’s restrictions.

At the conclusion of an FMLA period, the FMLA requires that an employer reinstate the employee to his prior position or “an equivalent position with equivalent employment benefits, pay, and other terms and conditions of employment.” The Seventh Circuit affirmed that the FMLA does not require an employer to return an employee to his position if that employee cannot perform an essential function of the job. 29 C.F.R. § 825.214(b).  As otherwise stated, there is no such thing as obligatory light duty under the FMLA.   (Note, other laws such as workers’ compensation and ADA statutes may impose different light duty obligations depending on the facts of each individual case.)