The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently announced that a New Mexico-based company will pay $750,000 for violating Title I and Title V of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), including ADA disability discrimination and retaliation. Specifically, the EEOC’s lawsuit alleges that the company denied employees with disabilities reasonable accommodations. Additionally, they failed to consider alternate accommodations before terminating them. On the 50th anniversary of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects federal employees, applicants, and contractors with disabilities, the EEOC and the Department of Labor (DOL) issued a disability resource guide. This guide provides crucial information on qualifying disabilities and reasonable accommodations that may be equally informative to private employers.
Background of the ADA Disability Discrimination Case
According to the agency’s lawsuit, the company implemented policies and practices that failed to accommodate ADA-qualified employees with disabilities. Instead, the company fired the employees due to their disabilities and in retaliation for exercising their rights to oppose the ADA disability discrimination. The violations included the following:
- Not allowing employees returning from medical leave to return to work unless they were released to “full duty” or “without medical restrictions;”
- Placing employees who could not return to work without restrictions within 90 days on involuntary unpaid leave and subsequently discharging them;
- Failing to consider alternate accommodations; and
- Refusing to reassign qualified employees with disabilities to vacant positions as a reasonable accommodation.
Employer Duty to Provide ADA Accommodations
Discrimination laws cover virtually all employers. Employers with 15 or more employees must comply with the ADA and any applicable state or local laws. Meanwhile, some state or local laws cover those with less than 15 employees. An ADA accommodation is a modification to a process, job role, or work environment to help an individual with a physical or mental impairment perform the essential functions of a job. All businesses subject to state, federal, or local laws regarding disability discrimination must comply with their legal duty to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with a disability upon request, barring undue hardship to the business. However, undue hardship must be based on an individualized assessment of current circumstances. Note that an employer may not refuse to provide reasonable accommodations just because it involves some cost. In fact, generalized conclusions do not suffice to support a claim of undue hardship. Factors in determining undue hardship include:
- Nature and cost of the accommodation;
- Financial resources of the facility fulfilling the reasonable accommodation request;
- Its effect on expenses and resources of the facility; and
- The overall financial resources, size, number of employees, and type and location of facilities of the employer (if the facility is part of a larger entity)
Penalties for Disability Discrimination and Retaliation
The EEOC filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of New Mexico (the Court). In EEOC v. Public Service Company of New Mexico and PNMR Services Co., the Court entered a two-year consent decree. Under the consent decree, the company must pay $750,000 in back pay and compensatory damages to ten individuals who were claimants in the ADA disability discrimination case. Additionally, the company must revise its discriminatory policies and practices to ensure that managers and supervisors provide reasonable accommodations upon request for qualifying individuals. The company must also provide annual training to all of their employees throughout New Mexico. Finally, the company must report any complaints of ADA disability discrimination to the EEOC during the two-year span of the decree.