EEOC files lawsuit alleging ADA violations related to denial for remote work
On February 14, 2023, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a federal lawsuit in the Northern District of Ohio alleging that Cleveland-based nonprofit, The United Labor Agency (ULA), violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on disability and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees unless doing so would pose an undue hardship on the employer.
Despite ULA’s self-identification as a nonprofit devoted to “address[ing] social issues outside of collective bargaining agreements” and “assisting unemployed and underemployed workers in finding new or better careers,” the lawsuit alleges that ULA violated the ADA after requiring employees to return to in-person work following an extended period of COVID-19-related remote work. Specifically, the EEOC alleges that:
- ULA denied an employee’s request for a reasonable accommodation under the ADA for continued remote work. This employee, who was undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer and was immunosuppressed, sought this accommodation to reduce her risk of exposure to COVID-19.
- Despite her requests to specifically notify her, ULA excluded the employee from company-wide emails notifying personnel about potential COVID-19 exposures.
- As a result of ULA’s denial of her accommodation request and failure to notify her about COVID-19 exposures, the employee was forced to resign to protect her health.
The EEOC attempted voluntary mediation and conciliation to settle this matter before pursuing litigation, but these efforts were fruitless. The EEOC now seeks back pay, compensatory and punitive damages for the employee, and equitable relief to prevent future discrimination.
Although only time will tell how this lawsuit is resolved, it does raise a number of key takeaways for employers:
- Employers need to understand their obligations under the ADA, which include providing reasonable accommodations to employees receiving ongoing treatments for serious medical conditions, as long as doing so would not pose an undue hardship on the employer.
- Employers need to be mindful of their return-to-office policies and the impact these policies may have on its employees and particularly its immunosuppressed, immunocompromised, and disabled employees.
- Employers need to reevaluate job expectations and requirements to determine whether an employee must be in-person to fulfill the key functions of their position.
McDonald Hopkins will continue to monitor the development of this lawsuit and similar lawsuits, and will make sure to keep you apprised of key takeaways, decisions, and changes relevant to employers.