On November 3, 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) filed a lawsuit against a major United States airline, alleging the company maintained policies that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), and inked a $9.8 million settlement deal with the company the same day. The EEOC alleged that the company maintained a “100% return to work” policy, meaning that the airline required individuals returning from medical leave to be able to perform their essential job duties without any disability-related restrictions (i.e., accommodations, such as reduced hours or sitting while working). The complaint named several individual plaintiffs who claimed to have been personally affected by this policy, and thus, discriminated against on the basis of their disabilities in violation of the ADA. Employees reported practices like the airline refusing to transfer injured or disabled employees, and refusing to offer intermittent, paid leave or seating behind a ticket counter, with the airline instead requiring disabled employees to reapply for other positions or find other work. The EEOC alleged that the company’s return-to-work policy itself, and the specific occasions on which the company employed it, were violations of the ADA’s mandate that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees to allow them to perform the essential functions of their jobs.
Notably, the EEOC filed this lawsuit even though the subject return-to-work policy was abandoned years before the lawsuit was filed. In addition to the large financial disbursement to the class of victims affected by the policy (those who are not included in the lawsuit as plaintiffs will be identified through a claims process, in which the EEOC ultimately has final authority), the settlement also requires, among other things, that the airline draft new ADA policies and submit any future changes to the EEOC; draft new job descriptions to address ADA accommodations head-on; designate an ADA coordinator within the company to handle all ADA accommodation requests; and provide computerized ADA training for employees and live, in-person training for Human Resources and ADA coordinators. The settlement deal takes the form of a consent decree, filed with the Court, and includes provisions that allow the EEOC to enforce the settlement in Court in the event of any perceived breach.
This is a reminder that blanket policies adopting an inflexible approach to individualized circumstances can be problematic, particularly with regard to employee absences or leaves. Employers with “fully healed” or “100% back to work” policies should revisit them and revise in light of applicable ADA guidance.