Employers evaluating ADA reasonable accommodation requests often must decide whether they have to provide extended light duty for an injured employee. In Frazier-White v. Gee, the Eleventh Circuit recently provided helpful guidance, holding that an indefinite extension of light-duty status was an unreasonable accommodation as a matter of law.
Plaintiff Frazier-White was a community service officer (CSO) for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) in Florida. As a CSO, Frazier-White was responsible for security-related duties at the sheriff’s detention center. She was injured in July 2010 at work when a heavy metal door closed on her right arm. Unable to perform her regular CSO duties, she was placed on light-duty status. Frazier-White got opinions from multiple doctors, but because of nerve damage and pain she was unable to return to her normal CSO duties even years later. The county’s standard operating procedure established that there were no permanent light-duty positions and also outlined a required medical due process hearing once an employee was on light-duty status for 270 days within a two-year period. HCSO terminated Frazier-White’s employment after the evidence at the medical due process hearing established that she could not perform the essential duties of her CSO job and it was unknown when, if ever, she could return to full-duty status. After her termination, Frazier-White sued for disability discrimination under the ADA and also for retaliation.
The ADA prohibits discrimination against a “qualified individual on the basis of disability.” In addition to this general nondiscrimination bar, the ADA also requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to an otherwise qualified individual unless doing so would impose an “undue hardship” on the employer. An accommodation is reasonable if it allows the disabled employee to perform the essential functions of the job. The parties agreed that Frazier-White was disabled and not qualified for her CSO job without some form of accommodation, so the issue in the case was narrow: whether the HCSO discriminated against Frazier-White by failing to provide a reasonable accommodation that would have enabled her to perform the essential duties of a CSO or another position for which she was qualified. Frazier-White proposed two accommodations: (1) an indefinite extension of her light-duty status or (2) reassignment to another position.
In dismissing the case, the district court found, and the Eleventh Circuit agreed, that neither proposal was reasonable. Because of her medical situation, Frazier-White did not know and did not suggest a time frame for when she would be able to resume her full-duty position. The courts found such an indefinite extension was unreasonable as a matter of law as the ADA is intended to cover people who perform the essential functions of their jobs “presently or in the immediate future.” The HCSO did not have any permanent light-duty positions and was not required under the ADA to create one. Reiterating previous ADA holdings, the court noted that a qualified, disabled individual is not entitled to the accommodation of her choice, but only to a reasonable accommodation. Frazier-White’s request for reassignment was likewise unreasonable as the HCSO did not have any full-duty vacant positions for which Frazier-White was qualified or could perform in light of her medical condition. She never requested reassignment or applied to a specific position or demonstrated that she could perform the essential duties of another position.
While addressing a narrow circumstance, the case is significant for employers who find themselves having to decide how to handle an employee on light-duty status with no end in sight and for whom there are no other positions available. Employers are required to provide a reasonable accommodation, but the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling makes clear that in doing so they do not have to allow an employee to remain on light-duty status in perpetuity or create a new job for him or her. The case also illustrates the importance of a having a well-established policy for light-duty status and injured employees. The HCSO had an established limit for light-duty status and a medical due process hearing in place, which put it in a good position to defend the claims when the time came.