Light Duty and the FMLA – Not Exactly Best Friends

Through the years, I’ve occasionally encountered situations where an employee who is off of work on FMLA leave is cleared to return to work with restrictions. Typically, those restrictions result in the need for a “light duty” assignment. This begs the question – Is an employer required to allow an employee on FMLA leave to return to a “light duty” assignment?

In James v. Hyatt Regency Chicago, 707 F.3d 775 (7th Cir. 2013), the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals took the opportunity to clarify its stance on this issue. In doing so, it did not mince words. The Seventh Circuit stated: “The FMLA only requires that an employer permit an employee to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for illness and return to his prior post or an equivalent position.” “Employers are under no obligation to restore an employee to his or her position if the employee is unable to perform the essential functions of the job.”

In other words, there is no such thing as “FMLA light duty.” So what is an Indiana employee to do? Ultimately, it is the treating physician, not the employee, who has to make the determination regarding whether, and to what extent, an employee is able to perform work. If the treating physician believes the employee can only return to work with “light duty” restrictions, the employer may chose to allow the employee to do so. However, that decision is strictly voluntary as the Seventh Circuit made it abundantly clear that employers are not required to do so.