The EEOC published a press release a few days ago about the distribution of a $6.2 million settlement it had reached with Sears, Roebuck & Co. The lawsuit had been filed in November 2004 in federal court in Chicago. The consent decree was entered and publicized on September 29, 2009 as the largest ADA settlement in a single case in EEOC history. The EEOC Regional Attorney handling the case stated:
The era of employers being able to inflexibly and universally apply a leave limits policy without seriously considering the reasonable accommodation requirements of the ADA are over. Just as it is a truism that never having to come to work is manifestly not a reasonable accommodation, it is also true that inflexible leave policies which ignore reasonable accommodations making it possible to get employees back on the job cannot survive under federal law. Today’s consent decree is a bright line marker of that reality.
The EEOC had complained that “Sears maintained an inflexible workers’ compensation leave exhaustion policy and terminated employees instead of providing them with reasonable accommodations for their disabilities, in violation of the ADA.” The settlement resulted in payments averaging $26,300 to 235 former Sears employees.
This is not the only such case pursued by the EEOC. The EEOC filed a class action lawsuit suit against UPS in Chicago on August 27, 2009. According to the EEOC press release, the case was initially prompted by an investigation into a complaint that UPS had fired an employee with multiple sclerosis after she exhausted the twelve months off to which she was entitled under the UPS leave of absence policy. She had asked for 2 more weeks of leave so that her medications could be adjusted, but UPS allegedly refused to provide it.
In November 2009, the EEOC reached a settlement with JPMorgan Chase & Co. in a class action based on similar allegations. The EEOC alleged that Bank One, which later merged with Chase, had terminated some employees after they exhausted six-month medical leaves without first investigating on a case-by-case basis whether it was possible to accommodate their limitations so that they could return to work. As a result of the settlement, $2.2 million was to be distributed among 222 individuals who had taken long-term-disability leave and were then terminated.
Big companies that have leave policies, no matter how generous, that call for automatic termination of employees who exhaust the specified period of available time off, are prime targets for EEOC class action suits. Many courts have upheld claims by employees that their former employers violated their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to even consider extending their leaves of absence or providing other forms of reasonable accommodation. Employers should examine their long-term and short-term disability and medical leave policies to ensure that they comply with the ADA’s mandate that employers attempt, on an individualized basis, to accommodate employees’ disabilities before terminating their employment.