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EEOC Lawsuits Demonstrate An Aggressive Position On Employer Obligations To Reasonably Accommodate

Employers have a legal obligation to accommodate work-related conflicts posed by an employee's or applicant's disability or religious beliefs. This seems simple enough - be "reasonable." Yet as many business professionals and lawyers know all too well, there is a great deal of room for differences of opinion as to what constitutes a "reasonable accommodation." Considerable effort (and litigation) has gone into defining what is required under the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (for religion). For its part the EEOC has routinely pushed the envelope; it expects employers to go to great lengths to satisfy their obligation to reasonably accommodate workers. Recent cases dealing with accommodations in the form of service dogs, sign-language interpreters, extended leaves of absence and adjusted work schedules, are just some of the positions taken by the EEOC in litigation (with varying degrees of success). Here are some examples:

  1. EEOC v. CRST Expedited: The EEOC filed suit against CRST Expedited on behalf of an applicant for an over-the-road truck driving position. After being admitted to a driver training program with CRST the applicant disclosed that he suffered from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He requested that he be allowed to have a trained service dog accompany him in his truck cab as an accommodation of his condition. The request was denied pursuant to CRST's "no pet" policy and the EEOC sued on behalf of the applicant. The case is pending in federal court in Cedar Rapids, IA; however, Judge C.J. Williams already has denied the defendant's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
  2. EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores: The EEOC sued on behalf of two deaf Wal-Mart employees, alleging violations of the ADA for the retailer's refusal to provide them with a sign language interpreter during staff meetings. The case was filed in federal court in Washington D.C. Although the Court initially determined the EEOC's complaint lacked sufficient factual allegations to raise a plausible claim for relief, it did so "without prejudice" to allow the EEOC to re-plead its complaint.
  3. EEOC v. North Memorial Health Hospital: The EEOC filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Minneapolis, alleging that North Memorial Hospital unlawfully rescinded a job offer and refused to hire an applicant opposed to working on the Sabbath, for religious reasons. The applicant's religion - Seventh Day Adventism - proscribes working from sundown on Fridays through sundown on Saturday. Both the trial court and, on appeal, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that North Memorial was within its right to rescind the job offer, relying on the fact that work schedules for the position in question were governed by a collective bargaining agreement.
  4. Severson v. Heartland Woodcraft, Inc.: Severson sued Heartland Woodcraft under the ADA for its denial of his request for an extended leave of absence (LOA) after Severson remained medically unable to return to work following 12 weeks of FMLA leave for an injury. Milwaukee federal court Judge Lynn Adelman dismissed the case, holding that a LOA under these circumstances was not a "reasonable accommodation." Although it was not a party in the lawsuit, the EEOC intervened in support of Severson on his appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in Chicago. The EEOC attempted to persuade the court that an extended LOA should have been granted as a reasonable accommodation to allow Severson an opportunity to recover from his injury and return to work at a later date.

Happily for employers, the appellate court rejected the EEOC's argument. The court instead held that a reasonable accommodation is expressly limited to those measures that will enable a disabled individual to work, not those allowing such individuals to be absent from working. Employers still should not assume that granting a LOA can never under any circumstances constitute a reasonable accommodation.

Questions? Contact Attorney James Sherman in our Minnesota office at (952) 746-1700 or by email at [email protected]

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