EEOC Charged Failure to Accommodate Scores of Discharged Workers in ADA Class Action
CHICAGO – A federal judge today signed a consent decree for $3,200,000 and extensive remedial relief resolving the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) disability discrimination lawsuit against supermarket giants SUPERVALU INC., American Drug Stores LLC, and Jewel Food Stores, Inc. (collectively referred to as “Jewel-Osco”).
According to the EEOC, Jewel-Osco had a policy and practice of terminating employees with disabilities at the end of medical leaves of absence rather than bringing them back to work with reasonable accommodations. Approximately 1,000 employees of the defendants’ Jewel-Osco stores in the greater Chicago area were allegedly terminated under this policy since 2003, the EEOC said. Not all of these former employees wished to participate in the suit or were found eligible by the EEOC.
Such alleged conduct violates the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois (Case No. 09-cv-5637) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.
The consent decree resolving the case, signed this morning by Federal District Chief Judge Ronald Guzman, provides for a fund in which 110 individuals will share, bringing the average award to approximately $29,000 per claimant. In addition to the monetary relief, Jewel-Osco is required to ensure that its employees involved in making accommodation decisions undergo training on the requirements of the ADA and on the types of accommodations that are available to return their employees to the workplace.
Jewel-Osco will also hire consultants to review and recommend changes to its current job descriptions, ensure that the descriptions of the physical requirements of the job are accurate and provide recommendations on possible accommodations to common work restrictions in various positions in the stores. The company will have to report regularly to the EEOC on its efforts to accommodate employees with disabilities who are attempting to return from medical leaves of absence. Furthermore, Jewel-Osco will revise its communications with such employees to assure them that they need not be 100% healed in order to be considered for a return to work, and to inform them of some of the types of accommodations that may be available to them if they are considering returning to work with medical restrictions.
“This very important settlement underscores the EEOC’s commitment to vigorous enforcement of the Americans With Disabilities Act and to ensuring that all workers receive fair and equal treatment in the workplace,” said EEOC Chair Jacqueline A. Berrien.
Regional Attorney John Hendrickson of the EEOC’s Chicago District Office said, “It is vital that employers understand that the primary goal of the ADA is to allow people with disabilities to be active and productive members of the work force,” “Sending them home, with reduced or no pay, and without the ability to advance, thwarts that purpose. I am concerned that some employers believe that keeping an employee who is able to work off the job and on a leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation relieving them of further obligations under the ADA. Such a belief could lead to costly mistakes.”
EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour added, “We are very pleased with the resolution of this case. Not only have we obtained significant financial relief for a large number of former Jewel and Osco employees, the employment practices that these stores use will be greatly improved. This is a win for the employees and a win for the company as well--it will retain employees who would have been discharged in the past, and so will continue to receive their productive and valuable services.”
In addition to Hendrickson and Gochanour, the EEOC was represented by Chicago Trial Attorneys Ethan Cohen, Gordon Waldron, Aaron DeCamp, Laurie Elkin, Deborah Hamilton, Richard Mrizek and Grayson Walker. EEOC attorneys from Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis also participated in the litigation. According to Hendrickson, the EEOC’s utilization of attorneys from numerous offices was consistent with the agency’s adoption of a “national law firm model” approach to important cases challenging systemic discrimination, and “it demonstrates once again that EEOC has the capability to successfully litigate large cases against major employers.”
The EEOC Chicago District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the agency is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.