Federal Agency Charges Giant Auto Parts Retailer Failed to Accommodate Disability-Related Absences of Employees, Retaliated Against Employee for Protesting
CHICAGO - AutoZone, Inc. violated federal law when it implemented a nationwide attendance policy that failed to accommodate certain disability-related absences, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in its fourth disability lawsuit in recent years against the giant auto parts retailer which the agency filed here today.
According to the EEOC's complaint, from 2009 till at least 2011, AutoZone assessed employees nationwide "points" for absences, without permitting any general exception for disability-related absences. Twelve points resulted in an employee's termination. As a result, qualified employees with disabilities with even modest numbers of disability-related absences were fired, the complaint alleges. This included, for example, an Ottawa, Ill. employee with Type 2 diabetes who had to leave work early occasionally because of insulin reactions and who was fired because of the resulting attendance points. The complaint also claims that another employee was discharged in retaliation for objecting to the attendance policy and filing a charge with the EEOC.
The EEOC brought the suit under Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits disability discrimination in employment, and under Title V of the ADA, which bars retaliation for reporting such discrimination. The EEOC filed suit after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The case, (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., Civil Action No. 14-cv- 3855) was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, and was designated and assigned to U.S. District Judge Marovich. The government's litigation effort will be led by EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour and Trial Attorney Justin Mulaire.
The case is the fourth disability discrimination case against AutoZone litigated by the EEOC in recent years. In 2009, a consent decree was entered resolving an EEOC claim that AutoZone had failed to promote a visually impaired employee in Cottonwood, Ariz., and denied him permission to use a guide dog (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., Case No. CV-06-1767 (D.Ariz.)). That decree awarded the employee $140,000 and required the company to conduct training about the ADA in all of its Arizona stores. In another case, a central Illinois jury found in 2011 that the company refused to accommodate a sales manager's disability by insisting that he mop floors, leading to further injury. (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc. Case No. 07-cv-1154 (C.D.Ill.)). That case resulted in a $424,000 judgment against AutoZone, which was affirmed on appeal. In 2012, the agency filed a third disability suit against the company, charging that it refused to accommodate the lifting restriction of a disabled employee at its Cudahy, Wis., store, and fired her instead (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., Case No. 12-cv-303 (E.D.Wis.)). The court recently ruled that the claims in that case will proceed to trial.
"The obligation to provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities has been the law of the land for over two decades, and businesses large and small, operating coast to coast have found ways to bring their operations into compliance with the law," said John Hendrickson, regional attorney for the EEOC's Chicago District. "So it is especially disappointing any time a huge national employer with tens of thousands of employees repeatedly engages in unlawful discrimination against individuals with disabilities and declines to share responsibility for maintaining a level playing field for disabled American workers. In those cases, the EEOC is ready to litigate, repeatedly if necessary, to assure that no employer-no matter how big-can continue to believe that somehow the ADA does not apply to it."
On its website, Memphis-based AutoZone traces its history to a single store opened in 1979 in Arkansas under the "Auto Shack" name. The company says that it is now "a Fortune 500 company and the leading auto parts retailer in the United States with more than $8.1 billion in annual sales." The company states that it does business in 48 states, has more than 65,000 employees, and "continues to fuel growth by exploring news businesses and entering new markets."
The EEOC's Chicago District Office is responsible for processing discrimination charges, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov.