Treehouse Foods Sued by EEOC for Disability Discrimination

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
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U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Nineteen-Year Employee With Disabilities Denied Intermittent Leave as Reasonable Accommodation and Then Fired, Federal Agency Charges

ATLANTA – Treehouse Foods, Inc. / Treehouse Foods Private Brands, Inc., a food products manufacturer, violated federal law when it denied a machine operator in its Forest Park bakery a reason­able accommodation for her physical disabilities, the U.S. Equal Employment Oppor­tunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it recently filed.

According to the EEOC’s suit, Treehouse Foods denied its 19-year employee’s request for an accommodation in the form of intermittent unpaid leave on at least five occasions due to treatment and hospitalizations for her COPD, chronic bronchitis, chronic bleeding ulcer and high blood pressure. Instead, Treehouse Foods failed to engage in the interactive process and assessed attendance infraction points to the employee under a rigid attendance policy. Treehouse Foods then fired her for exceeding the permissible number of attendance points, the EEOC said, despite the fact she provided medical excuses showing the absences were disability-related and despite the fact Treehouse Foods’ third-party admin­istrator later approved the leave.

Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits employers from making employment decisions based on an individual’s disabilities. The EEOC filed suit (Civil Action No. 1:21-CV-0204-WMR-JKL) in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement via its conciliation process. The EEOC is seeking back pay, front pay, and compensatory and punitive damages for the employee, as well as injunc­tive relief to prevent future discrimina­tion.

"The use of intermittent medical leave for treatment of a disability is widely recognized as a reasonable accommodation,” said Marcus G. Keegan, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Atlanta District Office. “The request for accommodation could have easily been granted here, but Treehouse Foods fired a 19-year employee on the verge of retirement instead of engaging in the interactive process and accom­modating her. Such treatment is unethical and unlawful.”

Darrell Graham, district director of the Atlanta office, said, “The EEOC is committed to ending disability discrimination. An employee should not be forced to risk termination for seeking intermittent leave as a reasonable accommodation for her disability under the ADA.”

The EEOC advances opportunity in the workplace by enforcing federal laws prohibiting employ­ment discrimination. More information is available at www.eeoc.gov.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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