Seyfarth Synopsis: In an EEOC-initiated systemic lawsuit alleging that a senior living and nursing facility operator violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”) by failing to offer employees light duty as a reasonable accommodation and ignoring its obligation to engage in an interactive process, a federal district court in California recently granted in part the employer’s motion to dismiss the claims of eight specifically identified claimants, holding that the EEOC failed to sufficiently allege that these individuals had a disability or could perform essential job functions.
For businesses facing EEOC-initiated litigation relative to disability discrimination, this ruling provides a blueprint for attacking such claims at the pleading stage.
In EEOC v. Prestige Care, Inc., Case No. 1:17-CV-1299, 2018 LEXIS 119305 (E.D. Cal. July 17, 2018), the EEOC brought a systemic lawsuit on behalf of thirteen identified claimants for violations of the ADA. Prestige manages nursing care facilities and senior assisted living facilities in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Arizona. Id. at *3. The EEOC alleged that Prestige implemented and followed policies that violated the ADA, including: (1) a “100% healed/100% fit for duty” return to work policy; (2) not offering light duty as a reasonable accommodation; and (3) ignoring its obligation to engage in an interactive process. Id. The EEOC argued that these policies did not permit reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals.
In its motion to dismiss, Prestige argued that the EEOC’s complaint was deficient as to ten of the thirteen claimants identified by the EEOC since it failed to allege they had impairments that affected a major life activity, or failed to identify essential job functions. Id. Without such allegations, Prestige argued there were no plausible ADA claims with respect to the ten claimants. In response, the EEOC argued that dismissal was inappropriate because the allegations stated plausible claims, including on behalf of unnamed individuals. Further, the EEOC argued that it would be premature to dismiss without the benefit of discovery as to the specific individuals.
The Court’s Decision
The Court granted Prestige’s motion to dismiss the EEOC’s claims as to the eight claimants while denying Prestige’s motion as to two claimants. The Court first addressed the EEOC’s arguments (1) that no challenge with respect to claimants was appropriate because it was not a proxy for any individual claimant or charging party; (2) Rule 23 does not apply to the Commission’s lawsuits or when a § 706 claim is pursued; and (3) the EEOC is not required to identify each member of the class to recover. Id. at *5. Noting that “none of these positions adequately address the issue at hand,” the Court explained that Prestige did not argue that Rule 23 applied in this case, nor did it attempt to impose any of Rule 23’s requirements on the EEOC. Further, Prestige did not argue that the EEOC must identify each person for whom recovery is sought. Rather, Prestige was simply raising the question of how to review the allegations concerning the persons that the EEOC chose to identify. As such, the Court held that when the EEOC pursues a systemic claim under § 706 and chooses to identify additional persons who have suffered some form of disability discrimination, the allegations must plausibly show that those “additional individuals” are protected by the ADA. Id. at *6.
The Court then addressed the sufficiency of the allegations as to each of the ten identified claimants that were the subjects of the motion to dismiss. In moving to dismiss the claims of eight of the ten claimants, Prestige primarily challenged the allegations by arguing (1) the EEOC did not identify or allege that a major life activity was affected; (2) the essential functions of the job were not identified; and (3) there were no indications that the aggrieved individual could have performed the essential functions of the job with or without accommodation. Id. at *8-11. For several claimants, the Court held that while the EEOC would identify a physical impairment in its complaint, for instance, plantar fasciitis, it failed to adequately identify a major life activity that was substantially affected by the condition (such as walking or standing, for the claimant with plantar fasciitis). Id. at *17. Regarding the EEOC’s failure to plead the essential job functions, by way of example, the Court noted that for a laundry worker claimant with PTSD and anxiety, the EEOC failed to identify any essential functions of the job, and therefore could not show she was qualified. Id. at *22. Accordingly, the Court granted the motion to dismiss eight of ten identified claimants.
In denying the motion to dismiss as to two of the ten claimants, the Court explained that the allegations were sufficient to plausibly show that the claimants were “qualified individual[s] with a disability.” Id. at *18-19. For instance, the Court held that for a claimant who disclosed a nerve condition that was adversely affected by standing for longer than 15 minutes and lifting heavy objects, the EEOC alleged that Prestige still hired him as a cook, and therefore believed that he could perform the essential functions of that position. As such, the Court held that dismissal of this claimant as a class member would be inappropriate. Id. at *19. Accordingly, the Court denied the motion to dismiss two of the ten claimants.
Implications For Employers
This ruling provides an excellent framework for employers in regards to attacking disability discrimination claims where the EEOC identifies multiple claimants. Employers can rely on the Court’s analyses relative to (1) how the EEOC often failed to identify a major life activity that was substantially affected by the physical impairment it identified; and (2) how the EEOC frequently failed to provide any information whatsoever about essential job functions in its pleading.
But despite dismissing eight of the ten claimants, it is noteworthy that the dismissals were without prejudice. Id. at *22-23. The Court held that the EEOC may file an amended complaint that addresses and corrects the deficiencies with respect to these eight alleged claimants. As such, even though the employer emerged largely victorious in this battle, the Court nonetheless afforded the EEOC a second bite of the apple to remedy its largely deficient pleading.
Readers can also find this post on our Workplace Class Action Blog here.