Sears Roebuck & Co. recently settled with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission a class-action lawsuit for $6.2 million, the largest monetary award for a single Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) suit in EEOC history.
The accusation against Sears was that the company discriminated against the disabled because it had an inflexible policy that allowed injured employees to take off of work for one year before they were automatically terminated for exhausting all leave. The EEOC said that this apparently neutral policy did not provide injured employees with reasonable accommodations in violation of their ADA rights.
With this suit, the EEOC is signaling an end to maximum leave policies. So if an employee has a serious health condition and uses all of his Family and Medical Leave but still cannot return to work, the employer now has to determine whether it would be a reasonable accommodation to allow the employee to miss more work. This is the EEOC position even though the courts have held that regular attendance is an essential function of most jobs and that indefinite, open-ended leave requests are not reasonable.
Texas courts have long held that maximum leave policies, neutrally applied regardless of whether the employee suffered an on-the-job injury, had a heart attack or wants to extend her maternity leave, are valid in Texas. The EEOC is undercutting those holdings in an attempt to impose a different standard (or no standard at all). From the settlement with Sears, the EEOC apparently wants all employers to follow these steps when an employee has been on leave and is unable to return at the prearranged time:
- The employer must notify the employee 45 days in advance of the date her leave expires.
- The employer must engage in the interactive process with the absent employee to determine whether part-time work, modified duties or a move to another position would reasonably accommodate the employee and allow him to return to work.
- If none of the previous options work, then the employer should consider offering additional leave beyond what the policy calls for.
What this means to even a small employer (15 or more names on the payroll) is that there will be no bright-line cutoff to an employee’s leave. If the EEOC’s position prevails, employers will have to hold all jobs open indefinitely for an employee who must take time off for an injury or illness.
At this point, my only advice is to wait and see how the courts react to the EEOC’s position. The Sears suit was a pretrial settlement, so we don’t know how this unreasonable position of the EEOC will hold up in court.
In Texas, it is still the law that an employer can enforce a neutral leave of absence policy by automatically terminating an employee who has exceeded the maximum leave offered. Just be aware that that law could change at any time if courts begin to side with the EEOC.