Is a 12-month leave of absence enough to avoid an ADA lawsuit?
The employee filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging disability discrimination, and the EEOC determined that the employer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The EEOC attempted to have the employer settle the matter through the EEOC’s conciliation program, but the EEOC was unable to obtain a settlement that was agreeable to the EEOC, so the EEOC brought a lawsuit against the employer in federal court (Case No. 09-cv-5291). After receiving information during the EEOC investigation, the EEOC decided to not only sue the employer for violations against the one employee under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but rather, the EEOC essentially brought a class action lawsuit, alleging that the employer violated the ADA by permitting the employees “only twelve-month leaves of absence” and failing to provide them with reasonable accommodations for their disabilities.
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The company fought the EEOC in court, arguing that none of the employees are protected by the ADA because they had taken twelve-month-long leaves of absence and their inability to work for a multi-month period removes them from ADA protection.
The business also argued that the employees are not qualified individuals with a disability because they missed 12 months of work. The thrust of the company’s argument was that these employees could not show that they were qualified individuals capable of returning to work and performing the essential functions of their jobs, in spite of being unable to work for 12 months at the time of administrative separation.
The EEOC fought back, explaining that each member of the class action lawsuit was a qualified individual with a disability who could perform the essential functions of his or her job with or without a reasonable accommodation. The EEOC’s rational was that, because disabilities, and the reasonable accommodations appropriate for particular individuals with disabilities, may vary significantly, the reasonable accommodations which the company should have made available to class members to permit them to perform the essential functions of their jobs (with or without a reasonable accommodation), would not have been the same. “The reasonable accommodations would have varied from class member to class member on an individual basis, as determined through an interactive process between [the company] and the individual class members. However, rather than engage in that interactive process and reasonably accommodate these class members, without undue hardship to itself, [the company] terminated the class members’ employment pursuant to its policy….”
In a press release in August 2017, the EEOC characterized this settlement being caused by the company’s “rigid leave policies [that] forced out employees who needed accommodations.” In fact, during the litigation, the EEOC characterized the employer’s actions as terminating employees “pursuant to its inflexible application of the same blanket twelve-month leave policy.” In making this argument, the EEOC even alleged that the leave policy violated the ADA, by operating as a “qualification standard, employment test or other selection criteria” that screens out or tends to screen out a class of individuals with a disability and is not job-related or consistent with business necessity.”
In addition to providing $2 million in monetary relief, the company also agreed to update its policies on reasonable accommodation, improve its implementation of those policies, and conduct training for those who administer the company’s disability accommodation processes. Furthermore, the company was forced to agree to provide the EEOC periodic reports on the status of every accommodation request for the next three years.
This case reminds Florida employers that the EEOC will go after a company that it views as having an “inflexible” leave policy, whereby the company fires disabled employees automatically when they reach a certain amount leave, without engaging in the interactive process required by law.
An EEOC spokesperson stated, “[t]he ADA requires companies to make a real effort to work individually with their employees with disabilities to provide them with the necessary and reasonable accommodations that will allow them to do their jobs.”
Another EEOC spokesperson said, “[h]aving a multiple-month leave policy alone does not guarantee compliance with the ADA. Such a policy must also include the flexibility to work with employees with disabilities who may simply require a reasonable accommodation to return to work.”If your Florida business needs any assistance in addressing an EEOC charge of discrimination or in handling a disability-related leave of absence, please email or call the Law Office of David Miklas, P.A. at 1-772-465-5111.
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After spending a lot of money on discovery costs and legal defense costs over several years of litigation, the business decided to settle this lawsuit. On top of the already high litigation costs, the employer agreed to a $2 million settlement.
An employee with a medical condition needed a leave of absence and the employer’s policy allowed employees a maximum of twelve-month leaves of absence for such situations. The 12 months of leave is more generous that the 12 weeks of leave required under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). When the employee was not able to return to work after the 12 months of leave, she was terminated.