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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Beware of the Light Duty ADA Trap


In June 2001, Paul Boyle was working as a Heavy Equipment Operator for the City of Pell City, Alabama, when he suffered an on-the-job injury that caused him to develop spinal stenosis, chronic nerve pain, and other related conditions.  After the injury, he could no longer perform the duties of a Heavy Equipment Operator. The Street Department Superintendent, initially accommodated Boyle by letting him do office work.

In 2005, his supervisor began allowing Boyle to perform the duties of the Street Department Foreman, and this was memorialized as a lateral move in a written agreement to not exceed 2 years. Boyle performed the duties of a Foreman from 2005 until June 2012. In 2012 rumors were that the new superintendent wanted to fire Boyle. 

Believing the rumors to be true, Boyle filed his first application for disability retirement with the Retirement Systems of Alabama (“RSA”) and attached to his application a “Report of Disability,” in which a physician confirmed that, in his professional opinion, Boyle was “totally incapacitated for further performance of his . . . duty.” The RSA denied Boyle’s application.

The new Superintendent did in fact remove Boyle from the Foreman position and moved him to work inventory. Boyle told the Superintendent that the physical activities involved in conducting inventory made the job hard for him to do, but told him to continue working. He also assigned Boyle to operate heavy equipment despite his back complaints. Boyle asked to be returned to the Foreman position, which was refused.

Boyle filed a second application for disability retirement with the RSA in August 2012, which the RSA approved and he retired on October 1, 2012. He also applied for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration and was ultimately approved.

 On August 18, 2014, Boyle filed a Federal Court complaint against the City, which he amended three times to assert violations of the Rehabilitation Act and FLSA, as well as state-law claims for quantum merit, unjust enrichment, and breach of contract. The District Court Judge dismissed all claims and held that Boyle could not establish that the City failed to provide him with a reasonable accommodation, given that he did not identify any reasonable accommodation that would have allowed him to perform the essential functions of the Heavy Equipment Operator position.

Recently the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal and held the fact that the City accommodated Boyle for years by allowing him to perform Foreman duties does not indicate that it violated the ADA/Rehabilitation Act by removing this accommodation. “While we can all applaud and appreciate the kindness toward Boyle, the law simply does not require an employer to demote or discharge an employee to accommodate another employee who is disabled.”

Common Sense Counsel: Always remember that the purpose of light duty is to move back to full duty, and not to create a new reduced duty position that may be viewed as an ADA accommodation. Make sure you have a memo signed by the employee with that acknowledgment, and put it on your calendar, so you do not have to explain your actions to a plaintiff attorney with an attitude.


Tommy Eden is a partner working out of the Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP offices in Opelika, AL and can be contacted at teden@constangy.com or 334-246-2901. Blog at www.alabamaatwork.com