Employers frequently offer light duty work as a means for injured employees to return to their regular job duties. Light duty is typically associated with employees with Workers’ Compensation related injuries. Earlier this month, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not require employers to agree to a permanent light duty assignment as a form of reasonable accommodation.
In Frazier-White v. Gee, the plaintiff was a Sheriff’s Department employee who was placed on light duty following her development of medical issues. Like most employers, the Department limits the length of time that an employee can remain on light duty, 270 days in this case. At the end of that period, the plaintiff was medically unable to return to her prior job, and requested permanent assignment to the light duty position. The employer declined, and she sued, claiming failure to provide a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.
The Eleventh Circuit affirmed dismissal of the suit on summary judgment. The court noted that employers cannot use arbitrary maximum periods of time under their policies to limit accommodation obligations. However in this case, the request itself was deemed unreasonable as a matter of law. The Eleventh Circuit concluded that the plaintiff was seeking reassignment to a vacant position. In order to provide a permanent light duty job, the Sheriff’s Department would have had to create an entirely new position, which is not required under the ADA.
In other cases, federal courts have not even reached the reasonable accommodation threshold when considering similar requests. Under the ADA, employers are typically not required to create even temporary light duty positions as an accommodation. Because those positions do not include performance of essential job functions for any existing position, they are not considered a form of reasonable accommodation.
Employers with existing Workers’ Compensation light duty programs sometimes face requests for participation from employees with non-work related injuries. In the past, the EEOC and several federal courts have differed with respect to employers’ obligations to open these programs to all disabled employees. Last year’s Supreme Court decision in the Young case dealt with exclusion of pregnant employees from light duty programs, but its reasoning may apply to ADA claims as well.
Employers are not required to establish light duty programs under the ADA. Those that offer light duty should, at a minimum, set clear maximum periods for light duty eligibility and make certain they communicate those deadlines to employees who participate in the programs.