By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.Christopher J. DeGroffMatthew J. Gagnon, and Kyla J. Miller

Seyfarth Synopsis: We are once again pleased to offer our readers an analysis of the five most intriguing developments in EEOC litigation in 2018, in addition to a pre-publication preview of our annual report on developments and trends in EEOC-initiated litigation. This year’s book, entitled EEOC-Initiated Litigation: FY 2018, provides a comprehensive examination of the EEOC’s FY 2018 filings, and the major decisions handed down this year in pending EEOC litigation.

Each year, we conduct a thorough analysis of new lawsuits filed by the EEOC and major case decisions handed down by courts across the country in EEOC litigation. Our goal is to identify key trends regarding new areas of focus for the EEOC and significant procedural or substantive developments in EEOC litigation. We package those trends and developments into one comprehensive volume, EEOC-Initiated Litigation: FY 2018, which we provide to our clients so they can use that information in structuring their compliance programs and to avoid becoming a target of the EEOC’s enforcement agenda. Our annual report is targeted towards HR professionals, corporate counsel, and other corporate decision-makers.

This year, we have analyzed trends and developments in light of the strategic priorities identified by the EEOC itself in its Strategic Enforcement Plan. Over the years, we have consistently found that those strategic priorities guide the EEOC’s actual enforcement agenda. How the EEOC has interpreted and defined its agenda in light of those priorities is one of the key insights that we hope to provide in our annual report.

The full publication will be offered for download as an eBook. To order a copy, please click here.

As always, we like to take a moment at the end of the year to reflect on what we consider to be the most intriguing EEOC-related decisions and developments of the year. Here is our list of the “top five” most intriguing developments of 2018.

Intriguing Developments 1 and 2: Pleading Tactics

A pair of cases decided under the ADA brought some interesting insight into the relative advantages and disadvantages the EEOC enjoys at the pleading stage.

In EEOC v. UPS Ground Freight, Inc., the EEOC took the unusual and aggressive step of arguing, in a motion for judgment on the pleadings, that the language of a collective bargaining agreement established a prima facie case of a discriminatory policy under the ADA because it paid drivers disqualified for medical reasons less than what it paid drivers disqualified for non-medical reasons. The Court granted the EEOC’s motion, and issued a permanent injunction against the company, holding that the agreement’s language was plain and unambiguous, and that no case-by-case analysis was required because the language itself was enough to establish that unlawful discrimination was part of the employer’s “standard operating procedure.” This decision is remarkable for a number of reasons, but perhaps most especially because of the EEOC’s unusually aggressive – and successful – tactic to establish a prima facie case of liability at the very outset of the case. Employers should be wary of the EEOC using this tactic in future cases.

In EEOC v. Prestige Care, Inc., however, the EEOC did not fare so well.  The EEOC sued Prestige Care on behalf of 13 identified claimants for violations of the ADA, arguing that the employer followed policies that did not permit reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals. In a motion to dismiss, the employer argued that the EEOC’s complaint was deficient as to ten of the 13 claimants because it failed to allege they had impairments that affected a major life activity, or failed to identify essential job functions, and therefore had not alleged that they had plausible ADA claims. The EEOC argued that it was not required to do so because it has the unique and broad authority to bring lawsuits in its own name on behalf of a group of unnamed individuals. The Court disagreed, holding that the EEOC is not immune to normal pleading requirements. When the EEOC identifies additional victims who have allegedly suffered disability discrimination, it must plausibly allege that those individuals are protected by the ADA. In other words, despite the often lopsided relationship between employers and the agency during the investigative stage, the parties are on equal footing in the court system.

Intriguing Developments 3 and 4: LGBT Discrimination, The Debate Rages On

For the past several years, the EEOC has maintained that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII because it is tantamount to discrimination for failure to adhere to perceived gender stereotypes. The U.S. Department of Justice under the Trump administration has conspicuously broke with the EEOC, arguing in a number of amicus briefs that Title VII does not cover those forms of LGBT discrimination. Nevertheless, the EEOC and private plaintiffs continue to rack up victories on this front. In Zarda v. Altitude Express, Inc., the Second Circuit ruled en banc that Title VII prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The Second Circuit has now joined the Seventh Circuit, the EEOC, and a number of district and administrative courts across the country that have interpreted Title VII to extend its prohibition of sex discrimination to sexual orientation.

Will the Supreme Court step in? With the federal circuits divided on this issue, not to mention the vastly divergent interpretations of Title VII by the agencies entrusted to enforce Title VII, many observers considered this issue ripe for review by the U.S. Supreme Court. And, in fact, the Supreme Court had set a date in November of 2018 to decide whether to grant review of three cases, including Zarda, which had addressed this issue. In November of 2018, the Supreme Court delayed consideration of that issue and then, abruptly, removed it from its calendar altogether. The original date had been set in September of 2018, before the bruising confirmation fight over Justice Kavanaugh. Some have speculated that this is evidence that the Supreme Court is trying to avoid controversial cultural issues during Kavanaugh’s first term to allow time for the dust to settle from his confirmation battle. In the meantime, employers are forced to contend with a confusing patchwork of interpretations regarding the scope of Title VII that can vary from Circuit to Circuit, and from District to District.

Intriguing Development 5: The #MeToo Movement Surges

Our last pick as a top 5 development of the year is actually an aggregation of the dozens of cases the EEOC filed alleging sexual harassment. As we previously reported here, one of the most striking trends of FY 2018 has been the huge spike in sex-based discrimination filings, especially those alleging sexual harassment. Lest there be any doubt as to whether this represents a significant shift in priorities, on October 4, 2018, just four days after the end of the EEOC’s 2018 fiscal year, the agency took the unusual step of announcing its preliminary FY 2018 sexual harassment data. Employers usually must wait until the EEOC releases its Performance and Accountability Report in mid-November to see that kind of data. The EEOC trumpeted filing 66 harassment lawsuits in FY 2018, 50% more than FY 2017. Given the intense focus on this issue, we strongly suspect that this trend is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Despite predictions to the contrary, the EEOC has continued its “business as usual” aggressive litigation despite two years under the Trump administration. Changes are, however, afoot. The Senate has still not confirmed two Trump-nominated Republican Commissioners, including one who is set to become Chair of the Commission, or Trump’s pick to be the EEOC’s General Counsel. (One of those nominated to be a Commissioner, Daniel Gade, recently withdrew from consideration on December 21, 2018, citing the delays in the nomination process as the reason.) Eventually, the impact of the injection of new decision makers will be felt, perhaps dramatically. That makes it especially important for employers to monitor these developments in 2019. Of course, we will have our ear to the ground, and look forward to sharing our thoughts and prognostications with our readers throughout the new year!

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

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: A federal district court in Kansas recently granted the EEOC’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in an ADA lawsuit brought against UPS and an employee union, holding that a policy in Defendants’ collective bargaining agreement where drivers who are disqualified for medical reasons can only be compensated at 90% of their rates of pay for temporary non-driving jobs, while drivers disqualified for non-medical reasons such as DWI’s are compensated at a 100% rate, was facially discriminatory.

This ruling should serve as a wake-up call to employers in regards to ensuring their policies relative to medical disqualifications and compensation are ADA-compliant.

***

Case Background

In EEOC v. UPS Ground Freight, Inc., No. 2:17-CV-2453, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125625 (D. Kan. July 27, 2018), the EEOC brought suit under the ADA regarding UPS’s collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) with its employees’ union, which provided that for employees with CDL’s (commercial drivers’ license) whose CDLs are suspended or revoked for non-medical reasons, including convictions for driving while intoxicated, those employees would be reassigned to non-CDL required (non-driving) work at their full rate (100%) of pay. However, for drivers who become unable to drive due to medical disqualifications, including drivers who are individuals with disabilities within the meaning of the ADA, UPS provided full-time or casual inside work at only 90% of the rate of pay.

The EEOC argued that the language of the CBA established a prima facie case of a discriminatory policy because it paid drivers disqualified for non-medical reasons 100% of their pay rate, while paying drivers disqualified for medical reasons 90% of the appropriate rate of pay for the work being performed. Id. at 5. UPS responded by arguing that judgment on the pleadings was inappropriate because: (1) the EEOC relied upon a selective and erroneous interpretation of the CBA; (2) the CBA contained ambiguities that precluded judgment; (3) “whether the CBA works to the benefit or detriment of a medically disqualified driver depends entirely on the particular factual scenario in each case,” which required the Court to engage in a case-by-case analysis to determine if an employee has been discriminated; and (4) the CBA did not limit the opportunities available to individuals with disabilities, but provided additional opportunities beyond what the ADA required. Id.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion for judgment on the pleadings.

First, the Court held that the CBA’s language was plain and unambiguous, and further, that it was “immaterial whether medically disqualified drivers have other options; paying employees less because of their disability is discriminatory under any circumstance.” Id. at 5-6. Further, the Court held that the alleged ambiguities that precluded judgment in the EEOC’s favor were attempts to create confusion where none existed. Specifically, the Court opined that UPS’s arguments were “red-herrings because they fail[ed] to address the pertinent issue — pay at less than 100% based on disability.” Id. at 6.

Turning to UPS’s argument that a case-by-case impact analysis was required to show that the policy was facially discriminatory, the Court rejected this argument, explaining that “[a]t the liability stage in a pattern-and-practice claim, the plaintiff must show that unlawful discrimination is part of the employer’s ‘standard operating procedure.’” Id. The Court further explained that under this standard, the government must establish a prima facie case of a discriminatory policy, but it was not required to offer evidence that each individual who may seek relief was a victim of the policy. As such, the Court held that the EEOC met its burden in establishing that the CBA was facially discriminatory.

Finally, the Court rejected UPS’s argument that he CBA did not limit the opportunities available to individuals with disabilities. The Court instead held that UPS did not provide a legitimate reason for paying medically disqualified drivers performing “inside work” less than those disqualified for other reasons under the CBA, and therefore failed to overcome the EEOC’s prima facie case of discrimination. Id. at 7.

In regards to injunctive relief, the Court held that the EEOC demonstrated that its claim warranted a permanent injunction. Id. at 7-8. Noting that monetary damages cannot prevent future harm, the Court opined that “[t]he only ‘hardship’ UPS Freight will suffer is paying medically disqualified drivers more (100% pay rate), which is the same rate it already pays its other, non-disabled employees.” Id. at 8. After further holding that the public interest will not be harmed by a permanent injunction prohibiting UPS from discriminating on the basis of disability, the Court ordered the next collective bargaining agreement is to prohibit the same discriminatory practice. Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC’s motion for judgment on the pleadings and thereby granted its motion for injunctive relief.

Implications For Employers

For employers who provide alternative work assignments to employees with medical disqualifications, this ruling should serve as an eye-opener. It is crucial that businesses examine the compensation for such employees to confirm they are not being compensated at a disproportionally lower rate than other non-medically disqualified employees who are reassigned. Accordingly, a best practice for employers is to routinely examine their policies regarding medical disqualification and compensation to ensure they are complying with the ADA, in order to prevent EEOC-initiated litigation.

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

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

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.

***

Case Background

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.

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In an ADA action alleging that a maker of train components discriminated against a group of applicants by regarding them as disabled, a federal district court in Illinois granted the EEOC’s partial motion for summary judgment, holding that the company’s decision to deny them work was based on improper tests concerning prospective injuries.

Employers should keep this ruling on their radar when considering medical testing in the job application process.

***

In EEOC v. Amsted Rail Co., No. 3:14-CV-1292, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 189713 (S.D. Ill. Nov. 16, 2017), Amsted made conditional job offers to thirty-nine applicants (the “Claimants”) for chipper positions, but placed them on medical hold because of abnormal results from a nerve conduction test (“NCT”).  Id. at *2-6.  The EEOC argued that Amsted violated the ADA by not hiring the Claimants on the basis of disability in regards to job application procedures and hiring.  Id. at *7-8.  Amsted justified its refusal to hire the Claimants by asserting there was a higher risk of developing carpal tunnel syndrome (“CTS”) for those with abnormal NCT results.  After both parties cross-moved for summary judgment, Judge J. Phil Gilbert of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois granted in part the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment, holding that the NCT did not indicate the Claimants’ contemporaneous inability to perform the chipper job, but only a prospective, future threat to their health if they were to perform the job. 

This ruling illustrates that employers must be careful not to make hiring decisions based on the potential of future medical injuries.

Case Background

Amsted employs “chippers” to finish the surfaces of the steel side frames for railcar components.  Id. at *3.  Chippers use pneumatically powered tools, such as 12-pound sledgehammers, to perform their jobs.  The work requires intensive use of the hands and arms, and includes exposure to vibrations.  In 2010 and 2011, during a hiring surge, Amsted offered employment to applicants who had the necessary skills and experience, but the offers were contingent on their passing a medical examination and other tests.  Id.  The medical examination aimed, in part, to determine applicants who were at higher risk of developing CTS, one of the risks of jobs that require intensive use of the hands and exposure to vibrations.  Amsted contracted with an outside medical company to conduct on-site medical exams, which included a medical history questionnaire, measuring vital signs, vision and hearing assessments, a physical examination, and an NCT.

Applicants whose NCT was “abnormal” were put on “medical hold pending further data” regardless of any other information obtained in the examination.  Id. at *4.  This was done because the medical testing company believed abnormal NCT tests indicated that an applicant was “right on the verge of” developing CTS and losing the use of his hand.  Id.  Amsted was aware that applicants were being placed on hold because of an abnormal NCT result and authorized this use of the NCT results.  Applicants who did not return with normal NCT results were not hired.  Amsted did not hire any applicants who did not test normal on an NCT.

The EEOC alleged that Amsted violated the ADA when it denied the Claimants employment on the basis of their disability rather than an individualized assessment.  Id. at *7.  The EEOC argued that an abnormal NCT result was an inappropriate basis for making employment decisions.  It further alleged that Amsted was not concerned with worker safety, but rather with reducing workers’ compensation costs.  Amsted challenged the EEOC’s ability to prove all elements of its ADA case, including that the Claimants were qualified because they did not pose a direct threat.  Id. at *9.  As such, both parties cross-moved for summary judgment. 

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted in part the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment.  With the exception of one Claimant, Amsted did not challenge whether the EEOC had sufficient evidence to prove the Claimants were disabled.  Id. at *10.  The Court rejected Amsted’s challenge relative to the lone Claimant, noting that because Amsted conceded it refused to hire the Claimant because it feared he posed a safety risk in light of his prior CTS diagnosis and corrective surgery, no reasonable jury could fail to find that it regarded him as disabled  Id. at *11.  Regarding the element that the Claimants be qualified, the Court opined that the relevant case law established that the qualification question focuses on the individual’s condition at the time of the defendant’s employment decision, regardless of what may happen to the individual in the future.  Id. at *15.

In addition, the Court addressed the adverse employment action element.  Id. at *18.  Amsted argued that the Claimants were not subject to an adverse employment action because they were not rejected for employment but were simply put on medical hold pending receipt of further medical information.  The EEOC argued that Amsted’s placement of Claimants on medical hold was an adverse employment action because it effectively foreclosed future employment as a chipper.  Agreeing with the EEOC, the Court held that “[t]he evidence show[ed] that the Claimants’ placement on medical hold due to an abnormal NCT result was an adverse employment action because it effectively precluded them from being hired.”  Id. at *19. 

Finally, the Court explained that the EEOC must show but-for causation in order to prevail.  Id. at *20.  Amsted argued that the EEOC could not establish a discriminatory intent because the company relied in good faith on medical judgments that the Claimants were unable to safely perform the essential functions of the chipper job or had certain medical restrictions.  The Court rejected this argument, holding that Amsted took the Claimants out of the applicant pool because of its perception that they were disabled.  Accordingly, the Court granted in part the EEOC’s motion for partial summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

In its Strategic Enforcement Plan for Fiscal Years 2017-2021, the EEOC identified eliminating barriers in recruitment and hiring as one of its six enforcement priorities (as we blogged about here).  For employers in industries where an applicant’s medical background may be important, it is crucial for those employers to keep the EEOC’s strategic priorities in mind.  When employers make hiring decisions based on the potential for future injuries, such as the employer here, they significantly increase their likelihood of facing EEOC-initiated ADA litigation.  As such, employers should be exercise caution when implementing medical testing procedures for applicants, and ensure such procedures are lawfully conducted.

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

By Matthew J. GagnonChristopher J. DeGroff, and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With uncertain times and profound changes anticipated for the EEOC, employers anxiously await what enforcement litigation the EEOC has in store. Although 2016 showed a marked decline in filings, fiscal year 2017 shows a return to vigorous enforcement filings, with a substantial number of filings in the waning days of the fiscal year.

Employers are living in uncertain times. The impact of a Trump Administration and the EEOC’s new Strategic Enforcement Plan (SEP) for fiscal years 2017-2021 are still working themselves out in the FY 2017 filing trends. Nonetheless, one trend has reemerged: a vigorous number of EEOC case filings. It looks like the anemic numbers of FY 2016 were just a bump in the road, as FY 2017 has revealed an increase in total filings, even eclipsing the numbers from FY 2015 and 2014. (Compare here to here and here.) This year, the EEOC filed 202 actions, 184 merits lawsuits and 18 subpoena enforcement actions.

The September filing frenzy is still an EEOC way-of-life, as this past month yet again holds the title for most filings compared to any other month. At the time of publication, 88 lawsuits were filed in September, including 21 in the last two days alone. In fact, the EEOC filed more cases in the last three months of FY 2017 than it did during all of FY 2016. The total number of filings for the remaining months remains consistent with prior years, including a noticeable ramp up period boasting double digit numbers through the summer.

Filings out of the Chicago district office were back up in FY 2017 after an uncharacteristic decline to just 7 total filings in 2016. This year, Chicago hit 21 filings, an enormous increase from last year. This is closer to the total number of Chicago filings in FY 2015 and 2014 (26 in each year). The Los Angeles district office also increased its filings, hitting a high of 22, a substantial jump compared to previous years and the most of any district office in FY 2017. On the other end of the spectrum, the Phoenix district office has seen a notable drop, with only 7 filings compared to 17 in FY 2016.

New SEP, Same Focus

Every year we analyze what the EEOC says about its substantive focus as a way to understand what conduct it is targeting. This year, Title VII takes center stage. Although Title VII has consistently been the largest category of filings, last year showed a dip in the percentage of filings alleging Title VII violations, at only 41%. Nonetheless, this year Title VII has regained its previous proportion, accounting for 53% of all filings. This is on par with FY 2015 and 2014, showing once again that FY 2016 seems to have been an outlier.

Although the 2017-2021 SEP outlined the same general enforcement priorities as the previous version of the SEP (covering FY 2012 to 2016), the new SEP added “backlash discrimination” towards individuals of Muslin/Sikh/Arab/Middle Eastern/South Asian communities as an additional focus. One would expect this focus might increase the number of Title VII claims alleging either religious, racial, or national origin discrimination. However, those filings stayed relatively even, and were even a bit down from previous years. Religious, national origin, and race discrimination claims made up 42% of all Title VII claims, compared to 50% in 2016 and 46% in 2015.

Uncertainty For Equal Pay Claims

With a new administration came a new Acting Chair for the EEOC. President Trump appointed Victoria Lipnic as Acting Chair on January 25, 2017. Employers expected the EEOC’s new leader to steer the EEOC’s agenda in a different direction. Some believed Lipnic was foreshadowing future trends when she made it clear at her first public appearance – hosted by none other than Seyfarth Shaw – that she is “very interested in equal pay issues.” (See here.) And indeed, we have seen a slight uptick in the number of EPA claims filed in FY 2017. In FY 2017, The EEOC filed 11 EPA claims, compared to 6 in 2016, 5 in 2015, and 2 in 2014.

However, on June 28, 2017, President Trump tapped Janet Dhillon as Chair of the EEOC. Dhillon would come to the EEOC with extensive experience in a big law firm and as the lead lawyer at three large corporations, US Airways, J.C. Penney, and Burlington Stores Inc. Although it is too early to know how she could change the direction of the agency if confirmed, it is entirely possible that she could back away from previous goals to pursue equal pay claims more aggressively.

The Trump Administration has also made other moves that may indicate a change in direction with respect to equal pay initiatives. On February 1, 2016, the EEOC proposed changes to the EEO-1 report that would require all employers with more than 100 employees to submit more detailed compensation data to the EEOC, including information regarding total compensation and total hours worked by race, ethnicity, and gender. This was a change from the previous EEO-1 report, which only required employers to report on employee gender and ethnicity in relation to job titles. However, on August 29, 2017, the new EEO-1 reporting requirements were indefinitely suspended. We will have to wait and see whether the slight uptick in EPA claims in FY 2017 was a one-year anomaly.

Implications For Employers

The changes brought by the Trump Administration are still in the process of working themselves down into the rank and file of many federal agencies. The EEOC is no exception. Despite all of the unrest and uncertainty about where the EEOC may be headed, the FY 2017 filing trends largely show a return to previous years, albeit with a slight uptick in EPA claims. Certainly, changes in top personnel will have an impact on how the EEOC pursues its enforcement agenda. Exactly what that impact will be remains to be seen.

Loyal readers know that this post is merely a prelude to our full analysis of trends and developments affecting EEOC litigation, which will be published at the end of the calendar year. Stay tuned for our continued analysis of FY 2017 EEOC filings, and our thoughts about what employers should keep an eye on as we enter FY 2018. We look forward to keeping you in the loop all year long!

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

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis:  After an employer circulated a letter to 146 employees discussing an employee’s EEOC Charge that alleged discrimination on the basis of his disability in violation of the ADA, a federal district court in Connecticut denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

This ruling provides valuable lessons for employers on the risks of widespread internal communication regarding pending EEOC charges.

***

In EEOC v. Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc., Case No. 15-CV-1416, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 133918 (D. Conn Aug. 22, 2017), a Day & Zimmerman NPS, Inc. (“DZNPS”) employee filed a charge with the EEOC alleging that DZNPS violated the ADA by denying him a reasonable accommodation.  As part of its investigation of the Charge, the EEOC sought information from DZNPS, including the names and contact information of other DZNPS employees.  Prior to providing the requested information to the EEOC, DZNPS sent a letter to approximately 146 employees that identified the Charging Party by name, and noted that he had filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC.  The EEOC alleged that by sending the letter, DZNPS retaliated against the employee for filing a charge with the EEOC in violation of the ADA and interfered with the Charging Party and letter recipient employees’ exercise and enjoyment of rights protected by the ADA.

As we previously blogged about here, the Court previously denied DZNPS’s motion to dismiss.  After the EEOC filed a motion for partial summary judgment on its interference claim under the ADA, and DZNPS filed a motion for summary judgment as to the Complaint in its entirety, Judge Victor A. Bolden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

For employers considering whether to communicate internally about the pending EEOC charges, this ruling illustrates they should be careful to avoid creating the perception that they are retaliating against employees who bring charges or interfering with other employees’ rights to file future charges.

Case Background

In or around the fall of 2012, DZNPS hired 147 temporary electricians, including the Charging Party, who was a member of Local 35 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (“Local 35”).  Id. at *4.  After the Charging Party began training for the position, he provided a doctor’s note to a DZNPS representative indicating that he could not work around radiation.  The note requested a reasonable accommodation.  After receiving the doctor’s note and the request for a reasonable accommodation, DZNPS terminated the Charging Party’s employment.

In October 2012, the Charging Party filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, alleging that DZNPS failed to accommodate his disability reasonably and unlawfully terminated his employment.  Id. at *5.  In March 2014, the EEOC sought information from DZNPS as part of its investigation of the employee’s charge, including the names and contact information of other electricians who had worked for DZNPS at the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, Connecticut in the fall of 2012.

In June 2014, before providing the requested information to the EEOC, DZNPS sent a letter to approximately 146 individuals, all of whom were members of Local 35 and all of whom had worked or continued to work for DZNPS.  Id. at *6-7.  In the June 2014 letter, DZNPS identified the allegedly aggrieved employee by name and indicated that he had filed a charge of discrimination on the basis of disability.  The letter identified his union local, the medical restrictions on his ability to work, and the accommodation he had requested.  It further informed the recipients of their right to refuse to speak to the EEOC investigator, and offered them the option to have DZNPS counsel present if they chose to speak to the EEOC.

The EEOC moved for partial summary judgment on its interference claim under the ADA.  DZNPS moved for summary judgment as to the Complaint in its entirety, arguing that: (1) the EEOC’s legal theories would violate DZNPS’s free speech rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution; (2) that the June 2014 letter is protected by the litigation privilege under Connecticut law; (3) that the EEOC cannot, as a matter of law, make out a claim for retaliation under the ADA; (4) that the EEOC cannot, as a matter of law, make out a claim for interference under the ADA; and (5) that the EEOC lacks standing to bring this case under Article III of the United States Constitution.

The Court’s Decision

The Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.  First, the Court rejected DZNPS’s claim that the EEOC lacked Article III standing to bring the case because no punitive or compensatory damages were available to the EEOC.  Id. at *13-14.  The Court noted that DZNPS cited to no legal authority supporting that proposition.  DZNPS also argued that if the Court found that its sending of the letter was either retaliation or interference in violation of the ADA, then the Court would be establishing a content and speaker-based restriction on speech that violated the First Amendment.  The Court rejected this argument on the basis that DZNPS identified no authority supporting its argument that the First Amendment protects speech from a defendant if that speech gives rise to liability under the ADA or other employment discrimination statutes.  Id. at *16-19.  Further, after analyzing Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89 (1981), and subsequent cases interpreting Gulf Oil, the Court held that the Gulf Oil line of cases did not prevent courts from imposing restrictions on employer communications in situations where those communications could amount to “coercion” or prevent employees from exercising their rights.  Id. at *20-22.

Turning to the ADA retaliation claim, DZNPS argued that there was no genuine dispute of material fact that the EEOC would not be able to establish the third and fourth prongs of the prima facie case of retaliation under the ADA, either an adverse employment action or a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.  Id. at *26-28.  DZNPS also argued that, even if the EEOC showed a genuine dispute of material fact as to the prima facie case for retaliation, the EEOC did not rebut DZNPS’s legitimate non-retaliatory reasons for sending the letter.  The Court found that when an employer disseminates an employee’s administrative charge of discrimination to the employee’s colleagues, a reasonable factfinder could determine that such conduct constitutes an adverse employment action.  In regards to DZNPS’s proffered legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for sending the letter, to “minimize business disruption” and notify the recipients that DZNPS had disclosed their “home telephone numbers and addresses . . . to the EEOC,” the Court found that a reasonable jury could also conclude that DZNPS’s explanation was pretextual because the letter did not need to explain that recipients need not speak to the EEOC investigator and that counsel for DZNPS could be present if the recipient chose to speak to the EEOC.  Id. at *34.

Finally, the Court addressed both parties’ motion for summary judgment on the ADA interference claim.  Id. at *35-39.  The EEOC argued that DZNPS interfered with the rights under the ADA of all the letter recipients because a reasonable jury would need to conclude that the letter had a tendency to chill recipients from exercising their rights under the ADA.  Citing its previous order denying DZNPS’s motion to dismiss, where the Court held that the disclosure of sensitive personal information about an individual could well dissuade that individual from making or supporting a charge of discrimination under the ADA, the Court found that a reasonable jury could conclude that the letter could have the effect of interfering with or intimidating the letter’s recipients with respect to communicating with the EEOC about possible disability discrimination by DZNPS.  Accordingly, explaining that because this question should be reserved for the jury, the Court denied both parties’ motions for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

For employers considering whether to internally disclose information on a widespread basis regarding charges of discrimination filed by employees, this ruling should serve as a cautionary tale.  Further, it illustrates how widespread internal communication regarding such charges could potentially be viewed as retaliation or interference under the ADA in the context of motions for summary judgment.  As such, employers should exercise caution when considering when and to whom it should internally disclose information about pending administrative charges.

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

200px-NDAla_sealSeyfarth Synopsis: An Alabama district court granted a temporary staffing company’s motion to dismiss all claims in one of the EEOC’s most high-profile lawsuits asserting hiring discrimination and abuse of vulnerable workers. The ruling illustrates the procedural defenses that employers possess to ensure that pre-lawsuit investigations undertaken by the EEOC accord with its obligations under the law.

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A recent mission of the EEOC has been to aggressively pursue lawsuits on behalf of “vulnerable workers” who may not always be aware of their rights. A result of the EEOC’s recent aggressiveness is that the Commission often neglects to fulfill its pre-suit obligations under Title VII and overlooks jurisdictional requirements when racing to the courthouse. These tactics came under scrutiny in EEOC v. Labor Solutions of Alabama, Inc. f/k/a East Coast Labor Solutions, No. 16-CV-1848 (N.D. Ala. Mar. 17, 2017), where Judge Virginia Emerson Hopkins of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama granted Labor Solutions of Alabama, Inc.’s (“LSA”) motion to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint. The Court found that the EEOC lacked subject-matter jurisdiction and failed to exhaust its administrative remedies after suing LSA for alleged conduct that occurred by its supposed predecessor before LSA was ever formed.

This ruling is a signal victory for employers involved in EEOC litigation regarding potential successor liability, as well as any employer involved in EEOC litigation where the Commission fails to exhaust its pre-suit duties under Title VII.

Case Background

The EEOC investigated charges of discrimination against a company called East Coast Labor Solutions, LLC (“East Coast”), alleging that East Coast discriminated against the charging parties on the basis of their national origin and failed to accommodate their disabilities. Following its investigation, the EEOC issued East Coast a letter of determination finding reasonable cause to believe that Title VII and the ADA were violated with respect to the charging parties and a class of current and former employees. Id. at 8.  The EEOC thereafter unsuccessfully attempted to conciliate with East Coast.  In November 2013, East Coast ceased operations.  LSA was formed in October 2014.

Despite the fact that LSA was not in existence when the alleged misconduct occurred, the EEOC filed a Complaint alleging that LSA subjected the Claimants to discriminatory treatment based on their national origin and failed to accommodate their disabilities. While East Coast partnered with its owner Labor Solutions (a different entity than LSA), the only Defendant named in the lawsuit was LSA.  Thereafter, LSA moved to dismiss the Complaint because it failed to allege that LSA employed the Claimants, thereby meaning the Complaint should be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim under Title VII and the ADA. Id. at 9.  LSA also argued that the EEOC failed to exhaust administrative prerequisites, noting that LSA was not named in the original EEOC charge or in any amendment thereto.

The Courts Decision

The Court granted LSA’s motion to dismiss. First, the Court addressed the EEOC’s argument that it alleged plausible facts to infer so-called “successor liability.” Id. at 11.  After thoroughly examining various Eleventh Circuit precedents regarding successor liability, the Court explained that “[a]lthough the Court agrees with the EEOC that successorship does not have to be conclusively determined at this stage of the litigation, that does not absolve the agency from pleading facts which make its existence plausible.” Id. at 26.

Applied here, the Court determined there were “no facts suggesting substantial (or even any) continuity in business operations from East Coast to LSA. The Complaint contains no allegations that there was any sale of East Coast, or any of its assets, to LSA.”  Id. at 27.  Finding there was no successor liability, the Court further reasoned that East Coast had been defunct nearly an entire year before LSA was formed; there was no allegation that LSA employed substantially the same work force and/or supervisors as East Coast; the Complaint did not allege that LSA operated at the same location as East Coast; there was no allegation as to whether East Coast could have provided relief before or after any alleged sale or transfer; and there was no allegation as to whether LSA could provide any relief now.

The Court further rejected the EEOC’s argument that East Coast and LSA were both temporary staffing agencies and that both entities shared the same managing officers, principal office address, and company email accounts, holding this was not enough to demonstrate continuity when one considered the break in time between when East Coast ceased operations and LSA began. Finally, the Court opined that even if the Complaint had plausibly alleged that LSA was the successor to East Coast, it would still be dismissed since it was undisputed that LSA was not named in the original EEOC charge, or in any subsequent amendment.  Accordingly, the Court granted LSA’s motion to dismiss, but noted the EEOC may file an amended complaint to attempt to cure its deficiencies.

Implications For Employers

For employers with intricate corporate structures and ties to defunct entities, this ruling is a major victory. Employers with corporate officers who previously worked at a similar but defunct entity can use this ruling to as a roadmap to navigate EEOC lawsuits concerning allegations from before their business was ever formed. In sum, this is yet another example of a court pumping the brakes on procedurally improper EEOC litigation.

Readers can also find this on our Workplace Class Action Blog here.

dice2By David J. Rowland

Seyfarth Synopsis: A seemingly innocuous case filed by the EEOC on behalf of a single charging party against a casino operator highlights some of the risks of betting at the conciliation table.  Employers take note!

As its FY 2016 wound down, the EEOC filed suit against a casino operator – in the case of EEOC v. Greektown Casino, L.L.C., Case No. 2:16-CV-13540 (E.D. Mich.) – alleging that it failed to accommodate and then terminated a pit manager because of his alleged disability – stress anxiety disorder. Obviously, the casino not yet responded to the complaint, and it may well have excellent legal defenses. Yet, the Complaint shows the EEOC’s hand (or at least part of it) and provides an example of some of the important stakes in EEOC litigation.

Is The Commission Bluffing?

Employers sometimes assume that the EEOC is only in the business of suing large companies based upon allegations of class-wide mistreatment of large groups of employees.  It is true that the EEOC makes headlines filing pattern or practice cases against big companies, but the EEOC routinely files complaints on behalf of individual charging parties against lesser known businesses and often smaller companies. In fact, the EEOC often does so strategically – because it has determined that the underlying legal issue is more important than whether there is a big-name company, thousands of employees, or big dollars involved. As noted here and here, the EEOC’s recent challenge to a wellness program, and its recent attempt to pursue a claim for transgender discrimination, for example, were pursued on behalf of individual charging parties. Obviously, though, the legal issues were deemed important and, frankly, the press coverage was just as wide as that of any of the EEOC’s behemoth cases.

Also, more than a few cases are filed by the EEOC because it simply determines justice must be done and that the charging party might not have the resources to pursue it.  So, don’t assume during the conciliation process that the EEOC is just bluffing when it threatens to bring a case on behalf of one charging party.  It happens.

Know When To Fold Them?

With each reasonable case determination, comes an invitation to the conciliation (gaming) table. The conciliation process can be long, episodic, and frustrating.  Along the way, an employer must balance the various pros and cons associated with settling a case with the EEOC.  Certainty of outcome is almost always a factor, as is money, but, for some employers, the question is whether the game is lost the instant a suit is filed by the EEOC.  Consumer product and service companies, for example, are heavily invested in brand development and the relentless pursuit of brand loyalty.  So, each employer must ask itself what it will wager on whether the failure to reach compromise will result in damage to its brand or company name if the government publicly accuses it of discriminatory treatment of employees (i.e., fellow consumers). The frustrating part is that the allegations may be wildly misleading and eventually proven wrong, but no matter how frivolous the assertions may be, the reputational damage can be done on filing day.

Know When (Not) To Run?

None of this is to suggest that employers should bend to the will of the EEOC in a meritless individual or class case just because the EEOC says it might file suit.  The fact is that the EEOC is quite choosy and has limited resources.  As we reported here, the EEOC filed only 136 cases in its fiscal year ending September 30, 2016.  By contrast, as noted here and here, the EEOC routinely receives more than 80,000 charges of discrimination per year. In other words, the odds of the EEOC filing suit are actually quite low in any given case.

Plus, not all negative publicity hits are created equal.  What is the issue?  Is there an advantage to taking a stand? Do you have strong PR advisors?  Can you turn it on the government – David v. Goliath style?

And, perhaps most importantly, settling is not always a good bet.  EEOC conciliation agreements are confidential as a matter of law and EEOC policy – except where the employer agrees to some measure of publicity.  Employers should bet that the EEOC will request an “agreed” press release if there is any level of significance to the case, and should demand to see details of that card before deciding to take it.

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

clockBy Matthew J. Gagnon, Christopher J. DeGroff, and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

 With the end of another EEOC fiscal year employers look with anticipation to what the year-end trends can tell us about the sometimes elusive EEOC litigation agenda. In years past, the EEOC has engaged in a “filing frenzy,” with dozens of lawsuits filed in the waning days of the fiscal year. Although there was an uptick in filings this year, the EEOC’s FY 2016 went out with a whimper and not a roar.

We have prepared the following chart, which shows the total monthly filings for FY 2013-2016, which highlights the EEOC’s historical year-end filings compared to the somewhat tepid activity that we saw this year.

cases filed by month

As with prior years, we anticipate that the EEOC may continue to file cases well into the night in the courthouses of the Western states, so the final tally may not be known for another 48 hours. But at the time of publication, the raw numbers show that the EEOC filed 136 lawsuits in FY 2016 (99 merits lawsuits and 37 subpoena enforcement actions). This is significantly less than prior years. (See here, here, here, and here.) The reason for this significant drop in lawsuits most likely can be attributed to the EEOC’s limited budget coupled to an already bloated litigation inventory. The fact that this is an election year with all of the possible changes that may represent could also be impacting the EEOC’s willingness to commit to additional litigation so close to November.

FY 2016 was originally planned to be the final year of the EEOC’s 2013-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”). The EEOC developed the SEP in 2012 in order to set its priorities and goals for enforcement activity through 2016. Last year, the EEOC received permission from the Office of Management and Budget to delay the release of a new SEP until 2018 so that the Commission could align its strategic planning with other agencies. Although the SEP has now been extended through 2018, this year still marks the final planned year, and provides a useful moment in time to look back and take stock of where the agency has driven its enforcement program over the past four years.

Cases Filed By EEOC District Offices

Location is always a key factor for defending against EEOC litigation. Year after year, certain EEOC district offices distinguish themselves by the number of cases that they file. The map below shows the number of filings by each district office in FY 2016.

Screen Shot 2016-09-30 at 11.02.55 PM

Filings by district office in FY 2016 were pretty much on par with prior years with one glaring exception. Year over year, Chicago has been the consistent leader in terms of total cases filed. Last year alone, the Chicago office filed 27 lawsuits. This year, the Chicago office filed only 7, a shockingly low number for that office. The other traditional filing leaders stayed consistent with prior years, and some even ticked up a bit in FY 2016. The Philadelphia office filed 22 lawsuits in FY 2016, up from 19 last year. The Charlotte office filed 16 lawsuits this year, compared with 13 last year. The Phoenix office filed 17 lawsuits in FY 2016, the same as last year. The bar chart below compares the number of filings from each office for FY 2013 – FY 2016.

By office

What Do The FY 2016 Filings Say About The EEOC’s Priorities?

Each fiscal year we analyze the EEOC’s filings to determine substantive trends. The following chart shows the number of claims categorized by statute, along with a further division of the largest category – Title VII – by discrimination theory.

As with prior years, Title VII cases were the majority of cases filed, making up 41% of all filings (as compared with 55% in FY 2015 and 57% in FY 2014). This is not particularly surprising given the number of protected groups covered by the statute. ADA cases also made up a significant percentage of the EEOC’s filings, totaling 41% this year. Together, complaints alleging discrimination under those two statues made up 82% of all cases filed in FY 2016. Age cases represented a relatively small 5% of the overall cases.

By statute

In late August, the EEOC issued its final revision to the Enforcement Guidance on Retaliation and Related Issues (which we discuss here), replacing the 18 year old Section 8, “Retaliation” portion of the Compliance Manual last updated in 1998. This revision touches upon all of the statutes which the Commission enforces, and covers the legal analysis used to define evidence that supports retaliation claims as well as retaliation remedies, legal access for persons with disabilities under the ADA, and even a play-by-play of employer/employee interactions that might prompt retaliation.

Considering the EEOC’s renewed focus on this area, we analyzed the FY 2016 retaliation cases to test which discrimination claims are most often paired with a retaliation claim. The following chart shows which types of discrimination were paired with retaliation allegations in FY 2016:

retaliation

 

Sex + retaliation cases make up the largest percentage of these claims at 46%, followed by race discrimination at 27%, pay discrimination at 13%, age discrimination at 7%, and disability discrimination at 7%. Pregnancy discrimination, national origin discrimination, religious discrimination, and genetic discrimination all had zero claims of retaliation.

In addition to the revised retaliation guidelines, the EEOC also revised its Employer Information Report (EEO-1) yesterday to require employers to submit information regarding employee pay range and hours worked. The Commission asserts that the purpose of collecting this pay data along with race, ethnicity, sex, and job category would be to “assess complaints of discrimination, focus agency investigations, and identify existing pay disparities that may warrant further examination.” It is, by most accounts, an ominous development for the future of EEOC litigation.

The EEOC also issued its final rules on employer wellness programs as they relate to the ADA and GINA, which clarify the implications of those rules and their interactions with employer wellness programs. We reported on this development here. Harassment was also a hot button issue for the Commission in FY 2016, with a particular focus on Muslims and people of Middle Eastern origin. Among other things, the EEOC issued a call-to-action for employers to ‘reboot’ harassment prevention efforts (which we discuss here).

Insight & Implications For Employers: Conclusions

As with prior years, this year’s analysis reveals that the EEOC’s activities continue to be guided by the 2012 SEP. For the past four years, we have reported on the many ways that the SEP has guided and shaped the EEOC’s enforcement initiatives – and with that, the landscape of labor and employment law. FY 2016 was the last year that was planned to be covered by the 2012 SEP. As we enter FY 2017, it is unclear whether we will see more of the same, or if we will see the EEOC branching out to new priorities and initiatives that may line up with its vision for the 2018 SEP and the future of EEOC litigation.

We will continue to analyze the data and filings from FY 2016 to extract additional insight about the EEOC’s litigation priorities, and what employers should watch out for in FY 2017 and beyond. We look forward to distilling those observations into our annual analysis of trends and developments affecting EEOC litigation. We hope that you are looking forward to that publication as much as we are, and that you continue to find it a useful reference and guide to developments in EEOC litigation. Please stay tuned, loyal blog readers!

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

thPBYES7VQBy Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: After the EEOC brought an action under the Americans With Disabilities Act against an employer who implemented a wellness program requiring employees to take a health assessment to participate, the Court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment and denied the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment after finding that the program was voluntary. As such, the ruling is a bench-slap to the Commission in terms of its position on challenging wellness programs.

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After an employer in Wisconsin implemented a wellness program that required employees to take a health risk assessment if they wanted to participate, the EEOC brought an action under the Americans With Disabilities Act (“ADA”), which generally prohibits employers from requiring employees to undergo medical examinations.  In EEOC v. Orion Energy Systems, Inc., No. 14-CV-1019 (E.D. Wis. Sept. 19, 2016), Judge William C. Griesbach of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin granted in part employer Orion Energy Systems, Inc.’s (“Orion”) motion for summary judgment and denied the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment.

This ruling illustrates that for employers who implement wellness programs that require employees to take a health assessment if they wish to participate, those medical examinations do not violate the ADA as long as the program is voluntary.

Case Background

In 2008, Orion switched from a fully insured health plan to a self-insured health plan.  In 2009, Orion implemented a multi-faceted wellness program.  Relevant here, employees would have to either complete a health risk assessment (“HRA”) at the beginning of the insurance year or pay the entire monthly premium equivalent amount.  Employees who completed the HRA paid no premium equivalent, but still had to pay their own deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses.  The HRA consists of a health history questionnaire and biometric screen involving a blood pressure check, body measurements, and blood analysis. Orion did not receive any personally-identifiable information as a result of the HRA, as the information was compiled by outside entities who then transmitted it to Orion in an anonymous format.  The anonymous, aggregated data allowed Orion to see the percentage of participants in its plan who had particular health risks such as high cholesterol, identify common health issues, and offer employees educational tools to improve their health.

In the spring of 2009, only one Orion employee chose to opt-out of the program.  Orion management spoke with the employee regarding negative comments the employee made to co-workers about the amount of the premium being charged by Orion.  The employee claimed she was told during this meeting to keep her opinions about the new wellness program to herself, while Orion claimed that such negativity was not welcome in the workplace, and that if the employee had concerns, she needed to speak with someone in management.  The employee later sent an e-mail criticizing the tactics of Orion’s former CEO.  Shortly thereafter, the employee was terminated.

The EEOC brought suit against Orion alleging it violated the ADA by requiring employees who elect to enroll in Orion’s self-insured health insurance plan to either complete the HRA or pay 100 percent of their monthly premium amount.  The EEOC also alleged that Orion violated the ADA’s anti-retaliation provisions, 42 U.S.C. § 12203(a) and (b), by instructing the employee not to discuss her concerns about the legality of this requirement with co-workers and by terminating her employment shortly after she voiced opposition to Orion’s wellness program.  Orion contended that its requirement that employees who elect to receive health insurance from Orion either participate in the wellness program or pay the full premium amount was lawful under the ADA’s insurance “safe harbor” provision, which allows self-insured organizations to administer benefits plans, or alternatively, that its wellness program is voluntary under 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d)(4)(B).  Both parties moved for summary judgment.

The Decision

The Court granted in-part Orion’s motion for summary judgment and denied the EEOC’s motion for summary judgment.  Initially, the Court explained that Section 12112(d)(4)(A) of the ADA “shall not require a medical examination and shall not make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability . . . unless such examination or inquiry is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity,” but that Section 12112(d)(4)(B) permits employers to conduct “voluntary medical examinations . . . which are part of an employee health program available to employees at that work site.”  Id. at 6-7.  The EEOC argued that the HRA was not “voluntary” given that Orion shifted 100 percent of the health benefit premium to employees who opted out.  Orion argued its wellness initiative did not violate the ADA for three reasons: (1) the ADA’s safe harbor relating to insurance applied to the challenged aspects of the wellness program; (2) Orion did not “make inquiries” since it received only anonymous, aggregated results from the HRA; and (3) the wellness program was voluntary because Orion’s employees had a choice regarding whether to participate and sufficient time to make that choice.

Regarding the safe harbor provision, the Court rejected Orion’s argument and found that the safe harbor provision did not apply to Orion’s wellness program.  Citing Congressional intent, the Court noted that the safe harbor provision was a limited exception that was created to protect the basic business operations of insurance companies, and that generally, wellness programs are unrelated to basic underwriting and risk classification.  Id. at 15 (citations omitted).  Applied here, the Court found that the wellness program was not used to underwrite, classify, or administer risk.  Id.  The Court explained that “[i]f an employee refused to complete the HRA and participate in the wellness plan, she could still be a member of Orion’s insurance plan, provided she pay the full premium amount. In short, Orion’s wellness program was wholly independent from its insurance plan.”  Id. at 16.

Next, the Court addressed Orion’s argument that even if its wellness initiative was not immune under the safe harbor provision, Orion’s program was still voluntary.  Id. at 17.  The EEOC argued that the wellness program was involuntary because shifting 100 percent of the premium cost to an employee who opted out of a program was so substantial that Orion’s offer to pay the health benefit premium in exchange for the employee’s participation in the program is more than a mere incentive.  The Court rejected the EEOC’s argument, noting that, “even a strong incentive is still no more than an incentive; it is not compulsion,” and that, “Orion’s wellness initiative is voluntary in the sense that it is optional.”  Id. at 18.  Accordingly, the Court found that Orion was entitled to summary judgment and rejected the EEOC’s claim that the wellness program, including the HRA, violated § 12112(d)(4)(A).

Finally, in regards to the EEOC’s retaliation and interference claims, Orion argued that the employee was not engaged in any protected activity by complaining about aspects of the program that were lawful.  The Court rejected Orion’s argument, noting it was “undisputed that [the employee] expressed concern about the confidentiality of her medical information under the new wellness initiative. As that is a legitimate concern under the ADA, i.e., something the ADA actually does govern, her expression may have been protected.”  Id. at 20.  Accordingly, the Court denied Orion’s motion for summary judgment as to the retaliation and interference claims.

Implications For Employers

Employer’s implementing wellness programs absolutely need to pay attention to decisions such as this one.  So long as participation in the program and any accompanying health assessment are truly voluntary, employers can utilize such wellness programs without violating the ADA.  Nonetheless, employers must be cautious in making sure their programs are truly voluntary or else face this risk of EEOC litigation.

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