Wal-Mart Settlement Shows ADA Risks When Considering Employee Return To Work Accommodation Requests & Inquiries

From handling requests for light duty or other modifications follow a leave to investigating the medical justification for leaves or the fitness of an employee to return to work following a medical absence, employers need to use care to manage disability discrimination exposures.

Today’s announcement by the  Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores East, L.P.  (Wal-Mart) will pay $50,000 in back pay and damages to settle an EEOC disability discrimination lawsuit highlights the potential disability discrimination risks that employers can face when deciding not to provide a requested accommodation to a worker returning from medical leave while other recent enforcement actions show ADA risks from simply making medical inquiries to a worker on or returning from medical leave.

In its lawsuit against Wal-Mart, Case No. 2:11-CV-00834, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, the EEOC charged that a Carlsbad, N.M Wal-Mart store violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by firing a part-time sales clerk, Marcia Arney because the store refused to provide temporary accommodations ordered by her physician following a period of medical leave.

According to the EEOC lawsuit, when Arney, a 22-year Wal-Mart employee, showed the store manager a note from her doctor requesting an accommodation involving periodic breaks off her feet, the manager refused to return her to her job unless she obtained a medical release with no restrictions. The EEOC claims that had Wal-Mart inquired further, it would have known the accommodation need was temporary and in any case, that Wal-Mart easily could have accommodated the restriction. 

Under the consent decree settling the suit, Wal-Mart will conduct annual live ADA training of management  officials at its Carlsbad store and post a notice on its agreement with the EEOC so that employees are aware  of procedures for reporting disability discrimination. Wal-Mart also committed to not require  disabled workers to produce a full release from their doctor upon returning  from a medical leave. Further, Wal-Mart agreed to engage in an interactive process with disabled employees to find a  reasonable accommodation to assist them in performing their jobs and to report future requests for accommodation, as well as charges and lawsuits alleging disability discrimination to the EEOC for the duration of the decree.

Title I of the ADA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals on the basis of disability in various aspects of employment.  The ADA’s provisions on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations reflect Congress’s intent to protect the rights of applicants and employees to be assessed on merit alone, while protecting the rights of employers to make sure that individuals in the workplace can efficiently perform the essential functions of their jobs.   An employer generally violates the ADA if it requires its employees to undergo medical examinations or submit to disability-related inquiries that are not related to how the employee performs his or her job duties, or if it requires its employees to disclose overbroad medical history or medical records.  Title I of the ADA also generally requires employers to make  reasonable accommodations to employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as  this does not pose an undue hardship or the employer the employer otherwise proves employing a disabled person with reasonable accommodation could not eliminate significant safety concerns.  Employers generally bear the burden of proving these or other defenses.  Employers are also prohibited from excluding individuals with disabilities unless they show that the exclusion is consistent with business necessity and they are prohibited from retaliating against employees for opposing practices contrary to the ADA.  Violations of the ADA can expose businesses to substantial liability.

As reflected by the Wal-Mart, violations of the employment provisions of the ADA may be prosecuted by the EEOC or by private lawsuits and can result in significant judgments.  Disabled employees or applicants that can prove they fully were denied reasonable accommodations or otherwise subjected to prohibited disability discrimination under the ADA generally can recover actual damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $300,000 of exemplary damages (depending on the size of the employer).   

The lawsuit against Wal-Mart is part of a wave of lawsuits in which the EEOC or other agencies under the Obama Administration are aggressively challenging medical examination and other medical screenings by private and public employers.  In the Wal-Mart case, the suit challenged an employer’s refusal to provide requested accommodations.  In other cases, however, the EEOC or other agencies under the Obama Administration also have challenged medical inquiries made by an employer to employees during or returning from leave.  Both types of suits send clear signals that employers should use care in making medical inquiries and responding to requests for accommodation from employees taking or returning from medical leaves.  See, e.g., Employer Pays $475,000 To Settle ADA Discrimination Lawsuit Challenging Medical Fitness Testing For EMTs, Firefighters & Other Public Safety Worker’s.

To help mitigate the expanded employment liability risks , businesses generally should act to manage their exposures.  Management needs to recognize the likely need to defend medical inquiries, decisions to refuse accommodation requests or other similar actions that arise when dealing with employees taking or returning from medical leave due to a disability, illness or injury.  Employers need to critically check and document the legitimate business justification for making a medical inquiry or refusing a requested accommodation based on a well-documented investigation and analysis tailored to the specific situation of each requesting employee.

Businesses also should consider tightening their documentation regarding their procedures and processes governing the  collection and handling records and communications that may contain information that could be helpful or hurtful in the event of a discrimination charge.  Businesses need to ensure that all required records and statistics are collected.  In addition, businesses also should consider strengthening record creation and retention efforts to help preserve other evidence that could be invaluable to defending charges and change the way that decisions are made and documented to position their organizations to more effectively demonstrate the defensibility of their employment and other business activities against potential nondiscrimination charges.

As part of this process, businesses also should carefully review their employment records, group health plan, family leave, disability accommodation, and other existing policies and practices to comply with, and manage exposure under the new genetic information nondiscrimination and privacy rules enacted as part of the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) signed into law by President Bush on May 21, 2008.  Effective November 21, 2009, Title VII of GINA amends the Civil Rights Act to prohibit employment discrimination based on genetic information and restricts the ability of employers and their health plans to require, collect or retain certain genetic information. Under GINA, employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees face significant liability for violating the sweeping nondiscrimination and confidentiality requirements of GINA concerning their use, maintenance and disclosure of genetic information. Employees can sue for damages and other relief like currently available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other nondiscrimination laws.  For instance, GINA’s employment related provisions include rules that will:

  • Prohibit employers and employment agencies from discriminating based on genetic information in hiring, termination or referral decisions or in other decisions regarding compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment;
  • Prohibit employers and employment agencies from limiting, segregating or classifying employees so as to deny employment opportunities to an employee based on genetic information;
  • Bar labor organizations from excluding, expelling or otherwise discriminating against individuals based on genetic information;
  • Prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information of an employee or an employee’s family member except as allowed by GINA to satisfy certification requirements of family and medical leave laws, to monitor the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace or other conditions specifically allowed by GINA;
  • Prohibit employers, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees from discriminating in any decisions related to admission or employment in training or retraining programs, including apprenticeships based on genetic information;
  • Mandate that in the narrow situations where limited cases where genetic information is obtained by a covered entity, it maintain the information on separate forms in separate medical files, treat the information as a confidential medical record, and not disclosure the genetic information except in those situations specifically allowed by GINA;
  • Prohibit any person from retaliating against an individual for opposing an act or practice made unlawful by GINA; and
  • Regulate the collection, use, access and disclosure of genetic information by employer sponsored and certain other health plans.

These employment provisions of GINA are in addition to amendments to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act that are effective for group health plan for plan years beginning after May 20, 2009.

If you have any questions or need help reviewing and updating your organization’s employment and/or employee practices in response to the ADAAA, GINA or other applicable laws, or if we may be of assistance with regard to any other workforce management, employee benefits or compensation matters, please do not hesitate to contact the author of this update, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.

About The Author

Management attorney and consultant Cynthia Marcotte Stamer helps businesses, governments and associations solve problems, develop and implement strategies to manage people, processes, and regulatory exposures to achieve their business and operational objectives and manage legal, operational and other risks. Board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, with more than 20 years human resource and employee benefits experience, Ms. Stamer helps businesses manage their people-related risks and the performance of their internal and external workforce though appropriate human resources, employee benefit, worker’s compensation, insurance, outsourcing and risk management strategies domestically and internationally. Recognized in the International Who’s Who of Professionals and bearing the Martindale Hubble AV-Rating, Ms. Stamer also is a highly regarded author and speaker, who regularly conducts management and other training on a wide range of labor and employment, employee benefit, human resources, internal controls and other related risk management matters.  Her writings frequently are published by the American Bar Association (ABA), Aspen Publishers, Bureau of National Affairs, the American Health Lawyers Association, SHRM, World At Work, Government Institutes, Inc., Atlantic Information Services, Employee Benefit News, and many others. For a listing of some of these publications and programs, see here. Her insights on human resources risk management matters also have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, various publications of The Bureau of National Affairs and Aspen Publishing, the Dallas Morning News, Spencer Publications, Health Leaders, Business Insurance, the Dallas and Houston Business Journals and a host of other publications. Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit and Other Compensation Committee, a council member of the ABA Joint Committee on Employee Benefits, and the Legislative Chair of the Dallas Human Resources Management Association Government Affairs Committee, she also serves in leadership positions in many human resources, corporate compliance, and other professional and civic organizations. For more details about Ms. Stamer’s experience and other credentials, contact Ms. Stamer, information about workshops and other training, selected publications and other human resources related information, see here or contact Ms. Stamer via telephone at 469.767.8872 or via e-mailto  cstamer@solutionslawyer.net

About Solutions Law Press

Solutions Law Press™ provides business risk management, legal compliance, management effectiveness and other resources, training and education on human resources, employee benefits, data security and privacy, insurance, health care and other key compliance, risk management, internal controls and operational concerns. If you find this of interest, you also be interested reviewing some of our other Solutions Law Press resources at www.solutionslawpress.com including:

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©2012 Cynthia Marcotte Stamer.  Non-exclusive right to republish granted to Solutions Law Press.  All other rights reserved.


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