Back in May 2016, Lowe’s, the home improvement store giant, agreed to pay $8.6 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the EEOC over Lowe’s firing of many individuals with disabilities when they exceeded the maximum amount of disability leave Lowe’s provided. The problem, as the EEOC saw it, was that Lowe’s failed to engage in reasonable accommodations beyond the standard disability leave policy. See U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v Lowe’s Companies, Inc., et al., C.D. Ca., Case No. 2:16-CV-03041-AB-FFM.
The Facts: This lawsuit began with three charges of disability discrimination filed by three employees of Lowe’s back in 2007 and 2009. These three plaintiffs alleged that Lowe’s violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by terminating their employment when their medical leave of absence exceeded Lowe’s 180-day (later extended to 240-day) maximum leave policy. The plaintiffs claimed that failure to engage in any discussion about further accommodations beyond the maximum leave violated the ADA. They wanted extended leaves of absence as a reasonable accommodation.
The EEOC agreed with the plaintiffs and also claimed that thousands of other Lowe’s employees were in the same situation. The EEOC ultimately filed a lawsuit in the Central District of California, the terminated Lowe’s employees were found to be a suitable class, and the case proceeded as a class action.
It was settled in May 2016, and the Court approved the settlement on May 12, 2016. (A copy of the Consent Decree can be found here.) Lowe’s admitted no wrongdoing, and the Consent Decree is not an admission. However, the company did agree to settle the lawsuit for $8.6 million and also consented to comply with a variety of non-monetary provisions. Lowe’s agreed to contact the terminated employees in the class and pay their damages out of the $8.6 million fund, as calculated by the EEOC, and to donate the remainder (if any) to non-profit organizations benefiting the disabled.
Lowe’s also agreed to amend its policies so that it would “engage in the interactive process with any employee with a disability who requests leave as a reasonable accommodation.” And the company agreed to retain Equal Employment Opportunity consultants approved by the EEOC for four years. These consultants will advise on policies, track all requests for accommodation, and educate managers on their duties under the ADA.
The Moral: There are few bright lines when it comes to working through disability situations. If an employee requests an accommodation, the employer ignores that request at its peril. A firm policy regarding leaves of absence is no longer a firm policy—exceptions must be at least considered if the employee claims to be disabled and to need more time away from work.
When the ADA was first enacted in 1990, I worked with managers to parse through how to simultaneously comply with disability leaves, worker’s compensation laws, absence policies, and the like. The situation grew even more complex with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993. I used to tell managers to stack up all the applicable laws and policies like slices of Swiss cheese. Only if an employee’s situation fit in gaps in every layer could the employee be discharged with minimal risk.
What the Lowe’s case shows is that some of the legal layers have no gaps—all employees requesting a reasonable accommodation should at least be given consideration, and an employer cannot have a blanket rule prohibiting certain accommodations. The EEOC will not accept any mandatory maximum leave policy.
The Lowe’s case is also interesting because of the broad relief granted pursuant to the Consent Decree. The provisions in the Lowe’s decree are the types of relief that the EEOC is likely to seek in every disability case it decides to take to court. Employers should consider whether and when accepting these types of interference in their business are worth disposing of a lawsuit, particularly a large class action case of the type that Lowe’s faced. It doesn’t take a loss in court to cause upheaval in the business; settlement can also be onerous.
It is best, therefore, to avoid as many lawsuits as possible. Therefore, engage in an interactive reasonable accommodation dialogue, document that engagement and all options considered, and be clear on why the employee’s requested accommodation is not reasonable and would constitute an undue hardship on the business.
When have you dealt with a difficult reasonable accommodation case?