[author: Abizer Zanzi]
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported in a press release that Interstate Distributor Company, a trucking firm, agreed to pay $4.85 million to settle a lawsuit alleging pattern and practice violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit, filed by the EEOC in a federal court in Colorado, claims Interstate maintained a “no restrictions” leave policy in which employees on leave were automatically terminated after exhausting 12 weeks of leave unless they were able to return to full-duty work without limitation. The lawsuit and sizeable settlement raises concerns for employers regarding potential liability arising from personnel policies.
The EEOC’s position regarding leave policies is nothing new. The federal agency has long-held the position that employers must make an individualized determination for each employee that has exhausted a leave of absence as to whether the employee can return to work with or without reasonable accommodation for a disability. Over the past couple of years, the EEOC has been aggressively pursuing this legal theory in court. Statutory and regulatory amendments to the ADA beginning in 2009 that redefined and expanded the scope of the term “disability” have made it easier for the EEOC to pursue class-based disability discrimination claims such as those raised against Interstate. The most recent settlement is a reminder that aggressive investigation and enforcement of the ADA remains a high priority for the EEOC.
The settlement is also a reminder that outdated personnel policies can expose an employer to a substantial amount of potential liability. Federal agencies such as the EEOC, NLRB and DOL continue to target systemic violations of the federal law as their highest enforcement priorities. The easiest way for an employer to find themselves on the wrong end of a costly investigation, charge or lawsuit is to maintain a policy that a federal agency deems unlawful. Lawsuits based on organization-wide policies are particularly problematic because they are susceptible to large-scale nationwide class allegations. Employers are encouraged to periodically revisit their personnel policies in light of the present climate of agency enforcement. Employers should further make sure that outside agencies responsible for administering human resources functions such as leave requests or workers compensation utilize current and best practices.