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7th Circuit Holds Light Duty is Not a Right under the FMLA

A recent 7th Circuit case has further defined
what constitutes a right under the FMLA

Carris James, an employee of the Chicago Hyatt Regency, injured his eye
during an altercation outside of work. 
James had originally noted vision problems on his application to Hyatt,
and the hotel had accommodated him by providing his written work in a larger
size font. He later underwent surgery to correct the damage caused by his
injury, and appropriately was provided with FMLA leave.

When he returned to work, James provided Hyatt with a
note from his doctor saying he could return to “light duty work.”  It did not list any further restrictions.  James took FMLA leave, which expired on July
13, 2007.  When his leave expired, James began
to submit letters from his doctor saying he could return to work if classified
as “visually impaired.”  Hyatt told him
he could not return to work with restrictions, and completed disability
paperwork.  At some point a different
physician informed Hyatt that James could return to work as long as no heavy
lifting was involved and he was classified as “light duty”.  Hyatt could not get into contact with James
to obtain clarification regarding his position and health.  Eventually, a meeting was scheduled, and
James agreed to return to work in early February 2008. 

Despite testifying that he was treated fairly by Hyatt,
James filed suit in 2009 alleging retaliation and interference with his FMLA
rights, and discrimination and retaliation under the ADA.  Basically, James claimed he was left on FMLA
leave for too long as his physician had informed Hyatt he could return to
work.  After the district court dismissed
his claims on summary judgment, the 7th Circuit took up the case.

The 7th Circuit held that there is no such
thing as “light duty” under the FMLA, and that Hyatt was justified in keeping
James on FMLA leave until he could fully perform his job duties.  James’ retaliation claim failed because he
ignored Hyatt for weeks at a time and did not indicate a desire to return to
work.  Finally, the court held that
James’ ADA claims failed.  Although he
was required to be provided with reasonable accommodations (such as the larger
size text originally used by Hyatt), here his contradictory medical information
defeated his claim.  Because James’
conditional doctor’s releases and information describing him as incapable of
working were contradictory, James never informed Hyatt as to the true nature of
his disability, and thus never triggered Hyatt’s obligations under the
ADA.  Further, some of the releases
indicated he could not perform the essential functions of his job, limiting
Hyatt’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodations.

In sum, when dealing with FMLA leave, employees
should always provide their employers with the most up-to-date and forthright
medical information to eliminate losing out on benefits.  Especially when the employer seems willing to
work with the employee to find a mutually beneficial solution (as Hyatt seemed
to want to do here), an employer will only hurt himself by not being
transparent and honest regarding his medical situation.

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