Recently, UPS settled a class action suit filed in 2009 by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") for $1,718,500.00. The EEOC’s lawsuit claimed that UPS’ policy of only granting employees up to 12 months of medical leave regardless of the circumstances violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). According to the EEOC’s complaint, UPS’ adherence to its inflexible 12-month leave policy resulted in the company not providing reasonable accommodations to employees and automatically terminating their employment after the 12-month leave had expired.
The EEOC argued that this policy was unlawful because the interactive process that employers are required to engage in with employees requesting accommodation is supposed to be tailored to each individual case, and what is reasonable is determined on a case-by-case basis. Thus, a strict “cap” on leave meant that UPS was not engaging in a good faith interactive process to determine whether or not some amount of additional leave would have enabled employees to go back to work for the company with or without minor restrictions that could have been accommodated.
In addition to the settlement payout, UPS has also agreed to a number of injunctive terms which control how it must handle accommodation issues moving forward. Specifically, by the terms of the settlement, UPS is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of disability against nonunion workers on medical leave, including those on disability who have asked for an accommodation. UPS also agreed that it may not retaliate against any employee who “has opposed any unlawful practice under the ADA, requested a reasonable accommodation, or filed a discrimination charge under the statute.” While these terms simply identify conduct that would have been unlawful in any event, their inclusion makes it easier for the EEOC to pursue relief on behalf of affected employees in the future.
Further, UPS also agreed to establish an ADA policy addressing a number of relevant issues. The policy will state that UPS will provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with disabilities. Additionally, UPS will provide instructions to employees about how to request a reasonable accommodation, instruct supervisors and managers who learn of an employee’s request for accommodation from any source refer the matter to HR, and that UPS will engage in the interactive process with employees requesting accommodations. Finally, UPS has agreed that its HR personnel will seek legal advice before terminating an employee who has reached the end of the provided medical leave of absence.
COUNSEL TO MANAGEMENT:
It is critical for employers to remember that, when it comes to their obligations under the ADA when responding to requests for reasonable accommodation, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work. As the UPS settlement highlights, having a uniform and absolute policy that the employer will only provide leaves of a certain length will likely land the employer in hot water with the EEOC or result in litigation from affected employees. Instead, employers must consider each request for accommodation on a case-by-case basis. Employers who have employees nearing the end of an agreed-upon medical leave who are not cleared of all restrictions must consider whether it is feasible to have the employee return to work performing modified duty or if additional medical leave can be offered to an employee to facilitate their return without creating an undue burden on the employer’s operations. Navigating the complexities of leave laws and reasonable accommodation requirements is extremely difficult and a minor misstep can result in significant exposure. Employers who have questions about how to handle a request for accommodation or are concerned with whether or not their leave and accommodation policies and practices are lawful are encouraged to contact the experts at The Saqui Law Group.