If recent litigation pursued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is any indication, any employer that still might think that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is easy to comply with and poses no significant legal exposure better think again. Recent high-profile EEOC victories and settlements show that the ADA is at the top of the EEOC’s agenda, and questionable policies and practices by employers could translate into extraordinarily expensive litigation.
The EEOC’s shift in focus to the ADA manifested itself shortly after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008, which expanded the protections of the ADA, with several major cases targeting employers’ leave policies that provided for automatic termination of any employees who exhausted their maximum leave allotments. Most recently in November 2012, the EEOC announced its latest $4.85 million settlement with a nationwide trucking firm, Interstate Distributor Co, in this kind of a claim (EEOC v. Interstate Distributor Co.)
But an employer would be mistaken to think that when it comes to the ADA, the EEOC will look to questionable leave policies and nothing else. Particularly in the past year, litigation trends have shown that the EEOC will look far and wide when litigating under the ADA. For example, in September 2012, the 7th Circuit allowed the EEOC to proceed in its lawsuit against United Airlines, Inc., in which the EEOC has claimed that United violated the ADA by refusing to place workers with disabilities into vacant positions for which they were qualified, instead requiring these workers to compete for job postings with non-disabled employees(EEOC v. United Airlines, Inc.)
The most extraordinary victory by the EEOC on the ADA front came just earlier this month on May 1 in the form of a widely publicized, $240 million jury verdict in the case of EEOC v. Hill Country Farms, Inc. Hill Country Farms involved egregious allegations of misconduct on the part of the employer. Specifically, the EEOC claimed that the company violated the ADA by discriminating against and harassing 32 intellectually disabled workers at a turkey manufacturing plant by subjecting them to a decades-long pattern of verbal and physical abuse, including offensive name-calling, hitting and kicking, substandard living conditions and paying these employees substantially less than their non-disabled co-workers. The case went to trial, at the end of which the jury awarded $7.5 million to each of the 32 plaintiffs. While this verdict eventually should be reduced based on the ADA’s damages caps, it still represents a tremendous victory by the EEOC.
The EEOC’s recent focus and litigation trends concerning the ADA should sound a warning bell to employers that the EEOC will zealously pursue any perceived ADA violations and will seek the maximum possible penalties. Thus, all employers would be well-advised to review their ADA-related policies and practices, to ensure that they are legally compliant. In going through this exercise, an employer should:
- Be sure to closely review the language of its leave policies and remove or revise any inflexible work return-related requirements
- Check that its handbook contains a well-written ADA accommodations policy
- Conduct appropriate training of its management and staff to help prevent and correct any discriminatory or inappropriate workplace comments or practices