Wednesday, March 6, 2013

7th Circuit Holds Light Duty is NOT a Right Employee Can Assert Under FMLA

Carris James was an employee of the Hyatt Regency Chicago since 1985 when he took a leave of absence in April 2007 due to an eye injury that occurred outside of work when he was involved in an altercation where he was punched in the eye.  When James applied to work for the Hyatt, he noted on his application that he had a vision problem that is correctable with eyeglasses and magnifying glasses. Hyatt was aware that James was nearsighted and accommodated him by increasing the print size of his work assignments and schedules.  In April 2007, James underwent corrective surgery and had to miss work in order to recuperate.

Hyatt's Human Resources Department learned that James' absence was attributable to a medical issue, and provided him with information regarding FMLA leave. As required under the FMLA, Hyatt's policies provide for twelve weeks of job-protected leave for eligible employees. On April 24, 2007, James provided Hyatt's Human Resources Coordinator with a note from his doctor, Dr. Scott, stating that James could return to "light duty" on May 10, 2007. The note did not list any specific restrictions, nor did it say how long James must remain on light duty. The next day James requested FMLA leave; the request was granted and Hyatt applied FMLA retroactively to cover James' absence prior to his submission of the certification form.

James' twelve week FMLA leave ended July 13, 2007. The collective bargaining agreement between his union and Hyatt, however, entitled James to remain on jobprotected leave for up to one year from his original absence. On August 2, 2007, James submitted to Hyatt a release from Dr. Scott that stated that James was allowed to return to work on August 5, 2007, with the restriction of being "visually impaired." James testified that Hyatt's Human Resources Coordinator told him that he could not return to work with restrictions. James did not return to work on August 5, and then continued to submit paperwork from Dr. Scott representing that James was incapable of working in any capacity. Forms provided by Dr. Scott stated he was "not sure" when James could return to work (May 11, 2007 and June 14, 2007 forms), that James would be unable to work until August 20, 2007 (June 1, 2007 form), and that James would be disabled until August 5, 2007 (August 2, 2007 form). Based upon James' request, and Dr. Scott's representations of James' condition, Hyatt completed all necessary disability paperwork.

Then, in late September 2007, a new physician faxed the Hyatt a note indicating that James could return to work with the restrictions of "no heavy lifting or excessive bending."  Hyatt then attempted to contact James in September, and again in December, to seek additional information as to the specifics behind his restrictions and the conflicting paperwork he was submitting. However, months went by and James offered Hyatt no further clarification of his condition.  Hyatt then directly contacted James' physician inquiring about James' medical condition, a meeting was scheduled with James and it was concluded that James would be granted two weeks of paid leave then return to work, which he did in February 2008.  

James testified that he felt he was treated fairly during the FMLA application process and that no one at Hyatt has said anything negative to him regarding his leave, eye surgery, or visual impairment. Nonetheless, James filed suit in 2009, alleging claims of retaliation and interference with his rights under the FMLA and discrimination and retaliation under the ADA. Ultimately, the district court found that James failed to present a genuine issue of material fact as to any of his claims, and granted summary judgment to Hyatt. 

Essentially, James claimed that he was "left on FMLA leave for too long" as his physicians repeatedly provided the Hyatt with releases to work.   


This was somewhat of an unusual claim since James requested, was granted and was out for the full 12-week period afforded under FMLA.  However, James argued that his benefits were nevertheless interfered with because it did not promptly reinstate him to his position when he presented the April 24 doctor's note that released him to "light duty" starting on May 11, 2007.  In rejecting this argument, the 7th Circuit noted that an employer has no duty under the FMLA to return an employee to his or her position, if that employee cannot perform an essential function of the job. See 29 C.F.R. § 825.214(b).  The Court then further cited previous case law that held, "[t]here is no such thing as `FMLA light duty'" Hendricks v. Compass Group, USA, Inc., 496 F.3d 803, 805 (7th Cir. 2007). See 29 C.F.R. §§ 825.220(d) and 825.702(d) (providing that an employee may take "light duty" under workers' compensation or may continue with unpaid FMLA leave).  


James' theory under this claim was that he suffered an "adverse employment action" when Hyatt refused to reinstate him after the submission of his April 24 doctor's note.  Here, James shot himself in the foot, so to speak, when he ignored Hyatt for weeks at a time while Hyatt reached out to him, as cited in the facts above.  This is why the Court shot this claim down, along with the reasons cited in the interference claim.  


James argued that by rejecting his requests to return to work via his doctor's "releases," Hyatt violated the ADA by failing to accommodate James' vision problems, with the same accommodations they have provided him for the past twenty years of employment. The Court noted that it is well established under the ADA, that an employee begins the accommodation "process" by informing his employer of his disability; at that point, an employer's "liability is triggered for failure to provide accommodations."Beck v. Univ. of Wis. Bd. of Regents, 75 F.3d 1130, 1134 (7th Cir. 1996).  However, the Court noted that Hyatt did not receive notification as to the true state of James' medical condition until Hyatt proactively reached out to James' physician in January 2008 for clarification. Prior to that point, James was simultaneously submitting conditional doctor releases, along with paperwork indicating he was completely incapable of working—all while failing to respond to Hyatt's requests for clarification as to the true nature of his condition. James argues that the conflicting medical documentation he submitted creates a materially disputed fact as to whether or not James could return to work. The Court found that circular reasoning does not establish a prima facie case showing Hyatt failed to accommodate him.  The Court also noted that the physicians' notes from James showed he could not perform the essential functions of his job.

The case is James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago (7th Cir. 2/13/13)

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