Last week the HR Law Insider warned businesses about the risk of large damage awards arising from the illegal enforcement of medical leave policies. Just yesterday, a large Tucson trucking company experienced that risk in real time — agreeing to pay $300,000 and furnish other relief to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by EEOC.
According to EEOC, trucking company CTI denied requests for unpaid leave beyond 12 weeks and transfers into open positions for which disabled employees were qualified.
For example, the EEOC charged that CTI discriminated against Elizabeth Barr because of her disability. CTI employed Barr as a payroll and billing clerk from November 2002 until August 2010. Barr suffered from a rare eye disease that substantially limited her eyesight, and she needed multiple surgeries to correct her eyesight. Barr took leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Prior to the expiration of her FMLA leave, CTI wrote her a letter informing her that if her doctor did not release her to “full, unrestricted duty” by the time her FMLA leave expired, her employment and benefits might be terminated. Barr asked CTI for additional time to recover, but CTI denied her requests, refused to explore possible accommodations, and terminated her on the day her FMLA leave expired.
Such alleged conduct violates the ADA. Accordingly, the EEOC sued CTI.
In addition to the settlement requiring CTI to pay $300,000 to several disabled employees, CTI also must take the following actions:
- hire a neutral, outside consultant to ensure compliance with the ADA;
- eliminate its policy of requiring employees to return to work with no medical restrictions;
- eliminate its policy of not considering leaves of absence, extended time off, light duty or reassignment as reasonable accommodations for individuals with disabilities;
- every six months for five years, report to the EEOC on compliance;
- train all its employees, including president, vice president, and human resources manager, on the ADA each year for five years;
- give Barr and other aggrieved individuals an apology and positive letter of reference;
- make job offers to the aggrieved individuals and Barr if there are job openings; and
- institute an evaluation system for supervisors and managers regarding their compliance with EEO laws.
“Employers should know they violate the law when they have blanket policies requiring disabled employees not to return to work until they are 100% healed,” said EEOC Phoenix Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill. “Such employers violate the ADA because they fail to conduct individualized assessments to explore reasonable accommodations that may allow disabled employees to return to work. Employers also violate the ADA when they have inflexible, rigid policies limiting unpaid leave to 12 weeks. Again, employers have an obligation beyond the FMLA to provide unpaid leave as a reasonable accommodation unless to do so would result in an undue hardship to the employer.”
EEOC District Director Rayford O. Irvin added, “Employers must grant employees with disabilities reasonable accommodations including leaves of absence, time off, light duty and reassignment -absent undue hardship. And they also must conduct fact-specific individualized evaluations when deciding a proposed accommodation is indeed an undue hardship rather than simply relying on assumptions or beliefs.”