Federal District Court Denies Indefinite Entitlement To Temporary Light Duty Positions

The United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois recently ruled that an employer's revised medical layoff policy -- which removed injured employees with permanent medical restrictions from light duty jobs and placed them on leave if they could not be reasonably accommodated to their former positions once their conditions ceased to improve and subjected them to possible termination one year later-- did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"). In Hendricks-Robinson v. Excel Corp., a class of unionized employees at a pork slaughtering plant challenged Excel's medical and layoff policies with respect to permanently restricted employees injured in the plant.

Prior to 1991, Excel assigned permanently restricted employees to light duty positions without regard to the bidding procedures or seniority provisions established for all other positions in the company's collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") with Local 431 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. After 1991, Excel reserved light duty jobs for temporarily restricted employees who would later return to their former positions. With respect to an employee with permanent medical restrictions, Excel would review the restrictions to see if the employee could perform the physical requirements of his or her former position or perform the essential functions of any other vacant production position in the plant, with or without any reasonable accommodations. If the employee could not, he or she would be placed in a temporary, light duty position, until he or she had reached maximum medical improvement. At that point, if the injured employee could not return to his or her former position, or to any other vacant production position, the employee would be placed on medical layoff. While on medical layoff, Excel would automatically bid the employee on all vacant production positions and would accept employee bids for any non-production positions. If, however, after a year the employee had not been awarded a position, the employee would be terminated pursuant to the CBA, which allowed Excel to terminate employees for excessive absenteeism.

The class of permanently disabled employees argued that light duty jobs were a reasonable accommodation for their disabilities and that Excel's medical layoff and termination policy violated the ADA by forcing them to relinquish those positions. Excel countered that the ADA did not mandate that plaintiffs receive an indefinite entitlement to its temporary light duty positions.

The district court agreed. It noted that, under Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") guidelines, the ADA does not require an employer to promote a disabled employee, to give a disabled employee "superseniority," to give a disabled employee an occupied position, to convert a temporary position into a permanent job, or to create a new position in order to provide a reasonable accommodation. The court found that Excel treated all of its light duty jobs as temporary positions, which allowed employees to remain employed while recovering from injuries. Accordingly, the district court held that requiring Excel to provide temporary light duty positions to plaintiffs on a permanent basis was not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

The district court further noted that, by permitting an injured employee to remain in a light duty position as long as he or she showed improvement, Excel had engaged in the type of individualized inquiry favored by the ADA. Moreover, the court found that under plaintiffs' proposal, eventually all of Excel's light duty jobs would be filled by permanently restricted employees. Thus, future temporarily restricted employees would no longer have the opportunity to work in temporary, light duty positions during recuperation and would instead be forced into medical layoff. Such a result would "violate the spirit of the ADA."

The plaintiffs also argued that once they were placed on medical leave, Excel failed to engage in an interactive process with them to discover any reasonable accommodations that would enable them to remain employed. Noting that both parties bear responsibility for determining what precise accommodations are necessary, the district court held that plaintiffs -- not Excel-- bore responsibility for any breakdown in the interactive process. Excel had satisfied its responsibilities by: allowing permanently restricted employees to engage in an informal colloquy with Excel; providing plant tours to enable them to ask questions regarding essential functions of various positions within the plant; setting up face-to-face meetings with company nurses regarding the employees' medical conditions and restrictions; providing for ergonomic monitors to discuss job requirements with injured employees; and automatically bidding permanently restricted employees on vacant production positions and enabling them to bid on nonproduction jobs. Thus, the district court held that "Excel not only made itself available to listen to its permanently restricted employees," it also in good faith used its established procedures "to engage in an interactive process to determine the feasibility of reasonable accommodations for permanently restricted employees."