Employees in Limbo Land – EEOC Challenges the Solution

One of the great dilemma’s for employers are employees who go on long term leaves of absence. Absent some sort of policy that puts a deadline on how long that leave can be, I have seen employers with untold numbers of individuals who may or may not still be employees. My term for them: “lost in limbo land.”

In Texas, where workers compensation retaliation has always been a major cause of action, the law has evolved so that a leave policy which results in termination after a fixed period of time, applied uniformly without regard to whether the leave of absence was based on a work related or non-work related injury, is a valid defense to those claims. For a long time, we have cautioned that the EEOC took the position, at least theoretically, that such policies could be a violation of the ADA. However, during the Bush administration, as far as I know, they did not pursue litigation to that effect.

But as we all know it’s now a new day and Employment Law 360 ($) has the story of a recent lawsuit filed in the the Northern District of Illinois, that raises that specific issue, UPS Medical Leave Policy Violates ADA .

The key paragraph from the Complaint:

Since at least 2002, UPS has maintained an inflexible 12-month leave policy which does not provide for reasonable accommodation of employees with disabilities and which instead provides for termination of their employment, in violation of Sections 102(a)and 102(b)(3)(A) and (b)(5)(A) of Title I of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. ยงยง 12112(a) and 12112(b)(3)(A)and (b)(5)(A).

Accompanied by this message from Stuart J. Ishimaru, the acting Chairman of the EEOC:

This case should send a wake-up call to corporate America that violating the Americans with Disabilities Act will result in vigorous enforcement by the EEOC. The ADA has been the law of the land for nearly two decades now, and employers simply have no excuse for failing to abide by its provisions.

With all due respect to acting Chairman Ishimaru, its not all that clear. And in fact, in the story, UPS denies that it has an automatic policy, instead saying it has granted exceptions to its policy for employees who seek accommodation under the ADA, and the 12 month deadline is “not automatic or absolute.”

Although there is a long way from a complaint to an appellate decision that would provide a definitive answer, this one at least initially appears to be set up to do so.

Hopefully, as this case wends it way through the judicial process, the courts will understand that this is an issue that has significant practical impact and one in which a ruling that does not take into account the need for employers to have control over who and who is not an employee in situations involving long term absences, could wreak considerable havoc.

Update 9.14.09: This is obviously not a one time idea by the EEOC, or at least the Chicago Region, as Employment Law 360 ($) is reporting a second employer has been sued for having a one year leave policy. See, EEOC Targets Supervalu In New ADA Class Action.This suit is also filed in the Northern District of Illinois but it also merited its own press release from the Commission.

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