Temporary Assignment of Worker with Disability to Light Duty OK

Employer is not required to make the light-duty job permanent

By Daniel L. Lowin May 25, 2016
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If an employer accommodates an employee with a disability by temporarily assigning her to a light-duty position, when that assignment ends, her job remains the original role for which she was hired, according to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Thus, if she still cannot perform the essential functions of her original job even with reasonable accommodations, the company may terminate her employment without subjecting itself to liability under the Rehabilitation Act (or, presumably, the Americans with Disabilities Act).

The U.S. Postal Service (USPS) hired Tammie Wade in 1997 as a mail-processing clerk. The position required her to stand for long periods of time at a mail-sorting machine. Starting in 2000, Wade began suffering from disabilities that rendered her incapable of standing for more than 15 minutes. Since she could not perform the essential functions of her position, she applied for a temporary assignment to light-duty work. The USPS granted her request and assigned her to light-duty “manual casing” work. Thereafter, Wade would renew her request and receive the accommodation on a regular basis.

In June of 2010, Wade was injured in a car accident. She sought to return to her manual casing role in December 2010, but the USPS no longer had such work available. It placed her on leave until March 2012 and then terminated her employment because she was unable to perform her essential job functions after being on leave for more than one year. Wade sued for retaliation and failure to accommodate under the Rehabilitation Act, which to government agencies and contractors is similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Rehabilitation Act protects individuals with disabilities who are “otherwise qualified” to do their jobs with or without reasonable accommodations. The USPS moved for summary judgment, arguing that Wade was not a “qualified individual” because she could not perform the essential functions of the mail-processing clerk position with any accommodation short of reassignment, and saying that it had no existing vacant positions to which it could reassign her. Wade argued that her job actually was the light-duty manual casing work to which she was assigned on a temporary but repeated basis.

The 5th Circuit agreed with the USPS, holding that Wade’s job was mail-processing clerk for purposes of the Rehabilitation Act analysis. It found Wade could not dispute the manual casing position was essentially an ad hoc assortment of tasks rather than an actual job with an official description and salary. The court explained that the USPS might have a duty to accommodate Wade by assigning her to an existing and vacant position, but if no such position was available it did not need to create a new position.

Wade v. Megan J. Brennan, Postmaster General, 5th Cir., No. 15-30653 (May 2, 2016).

Professional Pointer: This case emphasizes the importance of clarifying the nature of any reasonable accommodation provided under the Rehabilitation Act or the ADA, especially if the accommodation involves reassignment.

Daniel L. Lowin is an attorney with Seaton, Peters & Revnew PA, the Worklaw® Network member firm in Minneapolis. 

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