Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s grant of Summary Judgment in James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago reminding employers they are under no obligation under the FMLA to restore an employee to his or her position if the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job.

So here are the facts—Carris James was employed at Hyatt Regency as a steward for over 22 years. Although James was born with very poor vision, he was able to perform his job functions by wearing correctable eyeglasses and using magnifying glasses. Hyatt also accommodated him by increasing the print size of his work assignments and schedules. As a steward, James was responsible for maintaining the cleanliness of Hyatt’s food service areas and ballrooms and transporting food items and equipment. Most of James’ job responsibilities required he bend over, lift heavy objects, or both.

Well, in March or April of 2007, James’ eye trouble got even worse! He was punched in the face while away from work. James developed retinal detachment in his left eye, so he had corrective surgery on April 20, 2007. When Hyatt learned James was away from work due to a medical issue, the human resources official sent the necessary FMLA paperwork to James. James provided the requested documents on April 25, 2007, and Hyatt retroactively dated his leave back to April 19th, his first day away from work. Although James had exhausted his FMLA leave on July 13, 2007, as a member of the Local Union he was entitled to job protection for up to one year from his original absence—April 19, 2008.

Things got confusing when James began submitting doctors’ certifications regarding his ability to return to work. See if you can follow this…

April 24, 2007

Dr. Scott states that James could return to "light duty" on May 10, 2007. The note did not provide specific restrictions or state the length of time.

May 11, 2007

Dr. Scott states that James is unable to work in any capacity.

June 1, 2007

Dr. Scott states James will not return to work until August 20, 2007.

June 14, 2007

Dr. Scott states he was not sure when James could return to work.

August 2, 2007

Dr. Scott states James is allowed to return on August 5, 2007, with restriction of being "visually impaired."

September 25, 2007

Dr. Matchinski, a new doctor, states James can return to work with the restrictions of "no heavy lifting or excessive bending." Dr. Matchinski made no reference to any "visual impairment."

Are you confused yet? Well, Hyatt was!

Hyatt attempted to contact James in September and December of 2007 regarding the conflicting doctors’ certifications and to obtain further clarification regarding the lifting and bending restrictions, but James provided no further clarification. On January 15, 2008, Hyatt sought further clarification directly from Dr. Scott. Dr. Scott provided a certification on January 28, 2008, stating James could return to work, but would not be able to complete any task that required vision better than 20/200. Hyatt met with James shortly thereafter, and he returned to work in the same position, shift and seniority level on February 17, 2008.

No harm, no foul, right? Not according to James! He filed suit in the district court in 2009, claiming Hyatt interfered with his FMLA entitlement when it did not promptly reinstate him to his position once he presented the doctor’s certification releasing him to "light duty" starting on May 11, 2007. James also alleged FMLA retaliation and a failure to accommodate claim under the ADA. The court granted summary judgment to Hyatt, finding James failed to present a genuine issue of material fact. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling.

The Court held Hyatt did not interfere with James’ FMLA rights, finding first, there is no duty under the FMLA to return an employee to a former position when the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job, and secondly, that James’ claim that he should have been returned to work in April 2007 was contradicted by his own doctor’s medical certifications stating he was completely unable to work in any capacity until May. As a result, James failed to show how Hyatt interfered with his FMLA benefits.

With respect to James’ FMLA retaliation claim, the Court also found James could not demonstrate Hyatt retaliated against him for taking leave. In fact, Hyatt attempted to contact James on several occasions, and having received no response, reached out directly to his doctor seeking clarification. Upon receiving a response from his doctor, they scheduled a meeting to discuss his return. More importantly, James was returned to his same position, shift, and seniority level as before his leave.

Finally, with respect to his ADA failure to accommodate claim, the court noted that Hyatt did not receive notice of James’ true medical condition until Hyatt proactively reached out to his doctor for clarification. Because the conditional medical releases that Hyatt received prior to that time restricted James from performing essential functions of his job, the court held that Hyatt had no obligation to reassign these duties to coworkers when reassignment of those functions would be tantamount to a reassignment of the job itself.

Key Pointers

  • Employers should remember they are under no obligation under the FMLA to return an employee to work on "light-duty" status. If they do not agree to an employee’s light duty request, however, the employee will be entitled to remain on any remaining available FMLA leave.
  • Employers have no duty to reassign essential job functions to other employees. Keep in mind, however, that the EEOC takes the position that an employer’s reasonable accommodation obligation includes the obligation to transfer to a vacant position that would meet the employee’s medical restrictions.
  • Employers should carefully review all medical certifications to ensure the return to work date and employee status are clear and should take advantage of opportunities under the FMLA to authenticate and clarify any vague or inconsistent medical certifications.
Lisa Whittaker