Employees Cannot Always Get All the Light Duty They Want

March 06, 2017

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reaffirmed that an employee can’t always get what he or she wants under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), so long as the employee gets what he or she reasonably needs. The Court again drew the line between reasonable and unreasonable requests for accommodations made by disabled employees under the ADA.

For over 30 years, Employee worked for Employer. In his final position with Employer, Employee served as a facility technician, which required him to lace up his boots every work day, to climb utility pole ladders in all weather conditions, and to repair and install telephone and internet services. After Employee was diagnosed with a blood clot in his leg in 2010, his doctor instructed him to avoid climbing, wearing boots, and being outside in the cold. Clearly unable to continue performing the duties of a facility technician, Employee informed Employer of his doctor-prescribed temporary restrictions. Employer thereafter accommodated Employee by allowing him to perform light-duty tasks around the office.

When Employer learned that Employee’s restrictions were permanent, however, it terminated his employment. Although Employer informed Employee that a permanent light duty position was not an option, it did offer him several possibilities for relief, including 40 weeks of termination pay, a list of all vacant positions with the company, and participation in Employer’s job bank, which lists job openings as they become available. Employer also guaranteed Employee priority if he applied for a job listed on the vacancy list or in the job bank. Despite this offer, Employee did not apply for any open positions with Employer.

Instead, upon the expiration of his 40 weeks of termination pay, Employee sued Employer, claiming that his termination violated the ADA. Specifically, Employee asserted that Employer should have offered him a permanent light-duty position or a job within his previous department. The Court disagreed. In denying Employee’s claim, the Court reaffirmed the rule that an employer is not obligated to create a permanent light duty position for a disabled employee. In 2001, the Court faced a situation where an employee could no longer perform the essential functions of his job due to carpal tunnel syndrome. While the employee asserted that he should have received a permanent light duty position, the Court held the employer “had no obligation to create a permanent light duty post when none previously existed.” The Court again shot down an employee’s request for permanent light duty in 2007, stating it “is simply not required to engage its employee in a temporary light-duty assignment in perpetuity.”

In these cases, the Court has noted, however, that an employer may be required to transfer a disabled employee to a vacant position as a reasonable accommodation. Unfortunately for Employee, this rule of law did not save his claim, since he could point to no vacancies available at the time of his termination.

Seemingly unimpressed by Employee’s apathy, the Court lastly held that Employer met its obligations under the ADA by offering Employee resources to view and apply for vacant positions as they became available. At that point, the burden fell on Employee to request the position; Employer had no obligation to further reach out to Employee regarding vacant positions during his receipt of termination pay.

In sum, the Court reiterated these four principles regarding the requirement that employers provide “reasonable accommodations” under the ADA: (1) an employer is not obligated to continue employing an employee who cannot perform the essential functions of his job, with or without a reasonable accommodation, due to a permanent disability; (2) a reasonable accommodation may include reassignment to a vacant position; (3) ADA does not require an employer to create a new position to accommodate a disabled worker, or to extend a light-duty position in perpetuity; and (4) if an employee is terminated as a result of his inability to perform the essential functions of his position, the company is not obligated to contact the former employee to make him aware of positions that become available at the company.