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Federal Court Allows Sheriff’s Deputies to Proceed to Jury Trial On Their Claim that County Ignored Their Requests for Light Duty Assignments While Recovering from Work Injuries

By on September 14, 2017 in Claims with 0 Comments

Light duty was the issue in Smith v. DuPage Cnty. Sheriff, 33 AD Cases 789 (N.D. Ill. June 5, 2017).  Four Sheriff’s Deputies suffered work injuries in 2013 and 2014 and received full salary for one year while on leave from their injuries.  After the one-year period, the officers received the statutory amount for temporary disability benefits in Illinois, which was substantially less than their full salary.  The temporary disability benefits constituted two thirds of their regular salary without withholding taxes and pension contributions.   In addition, the County policy required that after 12 weeks of Family and Medical Leave, the employee is responsible for the cost of their entire health insurance premium.   All four officers had to pay the full cost of their health insurance following the 12-week period.

The officers repeatedly sought light duty assignments and contended that the Sheriff’s Office would not even consider their requests.  The Sheriff maintained the jobs of the officers while they were on leave and maintained their seniority but did not offer them light duty.  The officers sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act and argued that the County failed to make reasonable accommodation by denying them light duty assignments that they could have filled and which would have allowed them to regain their full pay and health benefits.  For its part, the County argued that it did in fact accommodate the officers because it maintained their job status and seniority.  Additionally, the County argued that the officers were not disabled under the ADA.

The Court considered 42 U.S.C. 12111 (9) which states that a “reasonable accommodation” includes “job restructuring, part-time or modified work schedules, reassignment to a vacant position.”  Further, the Court noted that the ADA Amendments Act liberalized the definition of disability to include injuries where workers have lifting restrictions along the lines of the plaintiffs’ injuries.  One officer could lift only a maximum of 10 pounds and was unable to bend, stoop, or climb.  Another could lift only 10-25 pounds and was restricted from bending and twisting.  Another had restrictions limiting her from pushing, pulling or grasping more than five pounds.  The Court concluded that there was enough evidence for a jury to determine that the officers were disabled under the ADA.

The evidence was conflicting whether there were in fact vacant light duty position that the officers could fill.  The Court said as follows:

Here, plaintiffs have identified positions which they believed were suitable light duty assignments.  Defendants dispute that positions in R & D  and the warrants division were suitable light duty assignments because they were for civilians and were governed by a separate collective bargaining agreement that restricted deputies in the Law Enforcement Bureau from holding positions in the Corrections Bureau.  However, it appears in the record that there was a light duty policy that did not prohibit employees from working light duty assignments in a different bureau.

The Court also observed that there was evidence that the Sheriff’s Office did not respond to the officers’ requests for light duty and did not engage in the interactive dialogue.  For these reasons, the Court denied summary judgment for the County and permitted plaintiffs to proceed to a jury trial.

The case illustrates a number of important points for workers’ compensation practitioners and employers.  While the EEOC Guidance states that an employer never has to create light duty positions, this is not applicable where an employer already routinely offers light duty assignments.  The question then becomes where there are vacant light duty positions and whether the employer engages in the interactive process.  This case also underscores a point that this practitioner often makes, namely that workers’ compensation cases can often lead to very costly ADA litigation.  Practitioners of workers’ compensation must keep one eye on the compensation case and another on potential employment litigation.

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John H. Geaney

About the Author

About the Author:

John H. Geaney, an executive committee member and shareholder with Capehart Scatchard, began an email newsletter entitled Currents in Workers’ Compensation, ADA and FMLA in 2001 in order to keep clients and readers informed on leading developments in these three areas of law. Since that time he has written over 500 newsletter updates.

Mr. Geaney is the author of Geaney’s New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Manual for Practitioners, Adjusters & Employers. The manual is distributed by the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education (NJICLE). He also authored an ADA and FMLA manual as distributed by NJICLE. If you are interested in purchasing the manual, please contact NJICLE at 732-214-8500 or visit their website at www.njicle.com.

Mr. Geaney represents employers in the defense of workers’ compensation, ADA and FMLA matters. He is a Fellow of the College of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers of the American Bar Association and is certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a workers’ compensation law attorney. He is one of two firm representatives to the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network. He has served on the Executive Committee of Capehart Scatchard for over ten (10) years.

A graduate of Holy Cross College summa cum laude, Mr. Geaney obtained his law degree from Boston College Law School. He has been named a “Super Lawyer” by his peers and Law and Politics. He serves as Vice President of the Friends of MEND, the fundraising arm of a local charitable organization devoted to promoting affordable housing.

Capehart Scatchard is a full service law firm with offices in Mt. Laurel and Trenton, New Jersey. The firm represents employers and businesses in a wide variety of areas, including workers’ compensation, civil litigation, labor, environmental, business, estates and governmental affairs.

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