Can we fire a disabled employee after 7 months of leave?
An employee filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming that her employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by strictly applying a leave policy which permitted seven months maximum of leave at which time employees who exceeded such leave were terminated. The EEOC investigated this charge and found several other employees who had similar complaints. The EEOC issued a Letter of Determination finding reasonable cause to believe that the employer had violated the ADA. The employer engaged in informal conciliation with the EEOC but was unwilling to offer a settlement that the EEOC would accept, so the EEOC field a lawsuit in federal court alleging violations of the ADA. U.S. Equal Emp't Opportunity Comm'n v. Sensient Dehydrated Flavors Co., Case No.: 1:15-cv-01431-DAD-BAM (E.D. Cal. Aug. 17, 2016)
In the lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that the employer had engaged in the following unlawful employment practices:
The main focus of the EEOC lawsuit was that the employer strictly applied a leave policy which permitted seven months maximum of leave at which time employees who exceeded such leave were terminated. Pursuant to the policy, according to the EEOC, the employer failed to engage in the interactive process and provide a reasonable accommodation of additional leave for these employees in violation of the ADA.
During the summer 2017 the employer agreed to pay a whopping $800,000 ($600,000 to go to eight identified claimants and $200,000 for a potential group of unidentified claimants) and provide other significant relief to settle the disability discrimination lawsuit.
According to the EEOC, several workers took extended leaves of absence for disability-related care, including surgeries and cancer treatments. The EEOC charged that employees were either discharged for surpassing the company’s restrictive leave policy or were required to return to work without accommodations or restrictions. The EEOC contends that when employees attempted to return to work even without restrictions, the employer refused to accept them back and fired them instead.
In addition to the monetary relief to settle the lawsuit, the employer also agreed to designate an employee to act as an internal equal employment opportunity monitor to review and revise, as necessary, the company’s policies against disability discrimination, retaliation, and its reasonable accommodation policies.
These tasks specifically must include having the employer pay for both internal and external legal review of any time the employer denies an accommodation request.
The employer also agreed to distribute the revised policies to all employees, provide training for both employees and management personnel, and designate an internal ADA coordinator who will assist the company in maintaining records.
If that wasn’t enough, the employer had to agree that the EEOC will actively monitor the employer’s compliance for the next three-years.
The EEOC issued a press release about this settlement, stating:
“Given the rise of disability leave cases, we encourage other employers to also examine their own practices and promote compliance with the ADA."
Another EEOC official reminded employers to not forget that a disability can happen to anyone at any time. “Finite leave policies that do not allow for reasonable accommodations, which in turn may result in the discharge of employees with disabilities, violate federal law.”
Florida employers are reminded that one of the six national priorities identified by the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) is for the EEOC to address emerging and developing issues in equal employment law, including issues involving the ADA
If you need any assistance in determining in addressing an EEOC charge of discrimination concerning your Florida business or if you need guidance in any employment policies, please email or call the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. at 1-772-465-5111.
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