By Gerald L. Maatman Jr. and Howard M. Wexler

On February 11, 2014, Judge Sara Ellis of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied United Parcel Services, Inc.’s (“UPS”) motion to dismiss in EEOC v. UPS, Inc., No. 1:09-CV-05291 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 12, 2014) –  a  lawsuit alleging that UPS violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) with respect to an “unidentified class” of individuals for maintaining a leave policy providing that employees will be administratively separated form employment after twelve months of leave.

The ruling is significant for all employers dealing with sick, injured, and disabled employees

Background Of The Case

Since 2002 UPS has maintained a leave policy that results in the administrative separation of employment after twelve months of leave. Id. at 1. The policy is applied to qualified individuals with disabilities capable of performing their jobs with or without a reasonable accommodation. Id. 

Although Judge Ellis’ most recent decision does not go over the prior case history, this decision is just the latest from the Court in this nearly five year old case. The EEOC initially brought an action in 2009 alleging that UPS violated the ADA by permitting former employee Trudi Momsen and the other unidentified class members only 12-month leaves of absence and failing to provide them with reasonable accommodations for their disabilities. UPS moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing (among other reasons) that the EEOC had not pled any facts to suggest there was someone who might be able to convince the Court to find him or her a qualified individual with a disability despite missing 12 months of work at the time of his or her administrative separation. The Court granted UPS’ motion, concluding that the complaint did not allege sufficient facts demonstrating that Momsen or the potential class members were qualified individuals. The EEOC attempted to cure the deficiencies in a first amended complaint (“FAC”), but the Court ruled that its efforts were insufficient as to the unidentified class members, and granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss. After initially denying its request, the Court eventually granted the EEOC’s request to file a second amended complaint (“SAC”). 

In the SAC, the EEOC alleged that this policy, “which acts as a 100% healed requirement,” violates the ADA in that it limits the ability of qualified individuals with a disability to return to work and is therefore an unlawful qualification standard. Id. at 3. In support of its motion to dismiss, UPS argued that its policy was lawful since “the ability to regularly attend work and not miss multiple months is an essential job function and not a qualification standards, employment test or other selection criteria.” Id. 

The Decision

Although noting that courts within the Seventh Circuit have held that regular job attendance is an essential job function, Judge Ellis held that UPS’ policy is in fact a qualification standard subject to the ADA as it imposes a medical requirement that an individual must meet in order to maintain his or her position with UPS – and not (as UPS argued) an essential job function. Id. at 4. As such, she reasoned that since UPS’ policy falls within the ADA’s regulations concerning qualification standards, Judge Elis denied UPS’ motion to dismiss and allowed the EEOC’s lawsuit to proceed. Id.

Implications For Employers

As highlighted by Judge Ellis’ decision, prosecuting claims under the ADA is one of the EEOC’s top agency goals. As with any request for an accommodation, employers must engage in an interactive process with the employee. In this context, the real question becomes whether an accommodation will enable the employee to complete the essential functions of the job, and whether the accommodation can be implemented without causing an undue hardship on the employer. Although the EEOC won the “battle” in this round by convincing Judge Ellis to allow its case to the proceed, the “war” in this litigation is far from over. Stay tuned!

Readers can also find this post on our Workpalce Class Action blog here.