October 10, 2012
Brace For New Disability Discrimination Claims
President Obama's declaration on October 1, 2012 of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month reminds business that U.S. businesses and their leaders need to tighten their disability discrimination risk management and compliance in light of the Obama Administration's emphasis on aggressively interpreting and enforcing disability discrimination laws, rising private plaintiff lawsuits and other recent regulatory and judicial changes.
President Obama’s declaration on October 1, 2012 of October as National Disability Employment Awareness Month reminds business that U.S. businesses and their leaders need to tighten their disability discrimination risk management and compliance in light of the Obama Administration’s emphasis on aggressively interpreting and enforcing disability discrimination laws, rising private plaintiff lawsuits and other recent regulatory and judicial changes.
With the Administration expected to step up further its already substantial educational outreach to the disabled and their advocates, U.S. employers should brace for this month’s celebration to fuel even more disability discrimination claims and other activity by the disabled and their activists.
Since taking office, President Obama has made enforcing and expanding the rights of the disabled in employment and other areas a leading priority. In his proclamation, President Obama reaffirmed his often stated commitment to the aggressive enforcement of disability laws and other efforts to promote opportunities for disabled individuals, stating “[My Administration remains committed to helping our businesses, schools, and communities support our entire workforce. To meet this challenge,… we are striving to make it easier to get and keep those jobs by improving compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.”
As the administration marks the month, U.S. employers and other business leaders can expect the Obama Administration will be stepping up its already aggressive outreach to disabled Americans to promote awareness of their disability law rights and tools for asserting and enforcing these rights. See, e.g. October Is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM).
Business Faces Growing Employment Disability Exposures
As part of his administration’s commitment, the Obama Administration has moved to aggressively enforce the disability and accommodations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and other federal disability discrimination laws. The reach and effectiveness of these efforts has been enhanced by statutory and regulatory changes that require employers to exercise greater efforts to meet their compliance obligations and manage their disability and other discrimination risks.
ADA Exposures Heightened
The ADA, for instance, generally prohibits disability discrimination and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations to employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as this does not pose an undue hardship. Violations of the ADA can expose businesses to substantial liability. Violations of the ADA may be prosecuted by the EEOC or by private lawsuits. Employees or applicants that can prove they experienced prohibited disability discrimination under the ADA generally can recover actual damages, attorneys’ fees, and up to $300,000 of exemplary damages (depending on the size of the employer).
In recent years, amendments to the original provisions of the ADA have made it easier for plaintiffs and the EEOC to prove disabled status of an individual. Businesses should exercise caution to carefully document legitimate business justification for their hiring, promotion and other employment related decisions about these and other individuals who might qualify as disabled.
As signed into law on September 25, 2008, the ADAAA amended the definition of “disability” for purposes of the disability discrimination prohibitions of the ADA to make it easier for an individual seeking protection under the ADA to establish that they have a disability within the meaning of the ADA. The ADAAA retains the ADA’s basic definition of “disability” as an impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a record of such an impairment, or being regarded as having such an impairment. However, provisions of the ADAAA that took effect January 1, 2009 change the way that these statutory terms should be interpreted in several ways. Most significantly, the Act:
- Directs the EEOC to revise that part of its regulations defining the term “substantially limits;”
- Expands the definition of “major life activities” by including two non-exhaustive lists: (1) The first list includes many activities that the EEOC has recognized (e.g., walking) as well as activities that EEOC has not specifically recognized (e.g., reading, bending, and communicating); and (2) The second list includes major bodily functions (e.g., “functions of the immune system, normal cell growth, digestive, bowel, bladder, neurological, brain, respiratory, circulatory, endocrine, and reproductive functions”);
- States that mitigating measures other than “ordinary eyeglasses or contact lenses” shall not be considered in assessing whether an individual has a disability;
- Clarifies that an impairment that is episodic or in remission is a disability if it would substantially limit a major life activity when active;
- Changes the definition of “regarded as” so that it no longer requires a showing that the employer perceived the individual to be substantially limited in a major life activity, and instead says that an applicant or employee is “regarded as” disabled if he or she is subject to an action prohibited by the ADA (e.g., failure to hire or termination) based on an impairment that is not transitory and minor; and
- Provides that individuals covered only under the “regarded as” prong are not entitled to reasonable accommodation.
The ADAAA also emphasizes that the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis. In adopting these changes, Congress expressly sought to overrule existing employer-friendly judicial precedent construing the current provisions of the ADA and to require the EEOC to update its existing guidance to confirm with the ADAAA Amendments. Under the leadership of the Obama Administration, the EEOC and other federal agencies have embraced this charge and have significantly stepped up enforcement of the ADA and other federal discrimination laws.
Recent enforcement, regulatory and other activities by the EEOC show that the EEOC is enthusiastically moving forward to exercise its regulatory and enforcement powers under these enhanced ADA provisions to tighten requirements for employers and to enforce its rules. See e.g.,
- Leprino Foods To Pay $550K To Settle OFCCP Charge Pre-Hire Screening Test Illegally Discriminated;
- As EEOC Steps Up ADA Accommodation Enforcement, New DOD Apple App, Other Resources Released;
- Wal-Mart Settlement Shows ADA Risks When Considering Employee Return To Work Accommodation Requests & Inquiries; and,
- Employer Pays $475,000 To Settle ADA Discrimination Lawsuit Challenging Medical Fitness Testing For EMTs, Firefighters & Other Public Safety Worker’s
Rising Rehabilitation Act Risks For Government Contractors
Beyond the generally applicable risks to all employers of more than 15 employees under the ADA, federal and state government contractors face more responsibilities and risks.
Subject to limited exceptions, government contractors providing services or supplies on ARRA or other government-funded contracts or projects must comply both with generally applicable employment discrimination requirements and special statutory and contractual nondiscrimination, affirmative action, and recordkeeping requirements applicable to government contractors. For instance, federal law generally requires government contractors to comply with the special equal employment opportunity requirements of Executive Order 11246 (EO 11246), Section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 503), and the Vietnam Veterans’ Readjustment Assistance Act of 1974 (VEVRAA).
Pursuant to these laws, business with the federal government, both contractors and subcontractors, generally must follow a number of statutory and contractual requirements to follow the fair and reasonable standard that they not discriminate in employment on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, national origin, disability or status as a protected veteran. OFCCP generally audits and enforces these requirements. See Memo to Funding Recipients: Compliance with Applicable Nondiscrimination and Equal Opportunity Statutes, Regulations, and Executive Orders.
OFCCP has made clear that it will conduct compliance evaluations and host compliance assistance events to ensure that federal contractors comply and are aware of their responsibilities under EO 11246, Section 503 and VEVRAA.
While many government contractors may be tempted to become complacent about OFCCP exposures based on reports of the OFCCP’s relatively low enforcement in the past, see Report Says OFCCP Enforcement Data Show Infrequent Veteran, Disability Bias Findings. Recent enforcement data documents that OFCCP is getting much more serious and aggressive about auditing and enforcing compliance with its affirmative action and other requirements against government contractors under the Obama Administration. See also OFCCP Enforcement Data is Available on a New DOL Website and Affirmative Action Update: OFCCP Enforcement Statistics Show Increase in Violations.
The readiness of OFCCP to enforce its rules is illustrated by the settlement of an OFCCP action filed against federal contractor Nash Finch Co. (Nash Finch) announced recently. Under the settlement, Nash Finch agreed to pay $188,500 in back wages and interest and offer jobs to certain women applicants who OFCCP charged Nash rejected for the entry-level position of order selector at the company’s distribution facility in Lumberton, Minnesota. See Settlement of OFCCP Employment Discrimination Charge Reminder To ARRA, Other Government Contractors Of Heightened Enforcement Risks.
These government contractor disability discrimination risks are particularly acute where the government contractor works on or provides supplies on contacts or projects funded in whole or in part by monies provided under ARRA. When the contract or project in question receives any funding out of the $787 billion of stimulus funding provided by ARRA, special OFCCP rules applicable to ARRA funded projects necessitates that federal contractors exercise special care to understand and meet their responsibilities and manage associated exposures. See, e.g. Settlement of OFCCP Employment Discrimination Charge Reminder To ARRA, Other Government Contractors Of Heightened Enforcement Risks.
GINA & Other Medical Information Nondiscrimination & Privacy Risks
Employers also need to use care to ensure that their hiring and other employment practices, as well as their employee benefits, workers’ compensation and wellness practices are up to date and properly managed to mitigate exposures under laws like the Genetic Information and Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), the ADA’s medical information privacy requirements, as well as the privacy and nondiscrimination rules of the Health Insurance Portability & Accountability Act and other relevant federal and state laws.
Signed into law by President Bush on May 21, 2008 and in effect since November 21, 2009, for instance, Title VII of GINA amended the Civil Rights Act to prohibit employment discrimination based on genetic information and to restrict the ability of employers and their health plans to require, collect or retain certain genetic information. Under GINA, employers, employment agencies, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees face significant liability for violating the sweeping nondiscrimination and confidentiality requirements of GINA concerning their use, maintenance and disclosure of genetic information. Employees can sue for damages and other relief like now available under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other nondiscrimination laws. For instance, GINA’s employment related provisions include rules that:
- Prohibit employers and employment agencies from discriminating based on genetic information in hiring, termination or referral decisions or in other decisions regarding compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment;
- Prohibit employers and employment agencies from limiting, segregating or classifying employees so as to deny employment opportunities to an employee based on genetic information;
- Bar labor organizations from excluding, expelling or otherwise discriminating against individuals based on genetic information;
- Prohibit employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information of an employee or an employee’s family member except as allowed by GINA to satisfy certification requirements of family and medical leave laws, to monitor the biological effects of toxic substances in the workplace or other conditions specifically allowed by GINA;
- Prohibit employers, labor organizations and joint labor-management committees from discriminating in any decisions related to admission or employment in training or retraining programs, including apprenticeships based on genetic information;
- Mandate that in the narrow situations where genetic information is obtained by a covered entity, it maintain the information on separate forms in separate medical files, treat the information as a confidential medical record, and not disclose the genetic information except in those situations specifically allowed by GINA;
- Prohibit any person from retaliating against an individual for opposing an act or practice made unlawful by GINA; and
- Regulate the collection, use, access and disclosure of genetic information by employer sponsored and certain other health plans.
These employment provisions of GINA are in addition to amendments to HIPAA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), the Public Health Service Act, the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, and Title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act that are effective for group health plan for plan years beginning after May 20, 2009.
Under these HIPAA and GINA rules, health plans generally may not make certain medical inquiries or discriminate against employees or their family members based on family or individual medical history or genetic information. In addition, health plans and others are required to safeguard personal medical information and may only share that information under very limited circumstances requiring specific documentation be in place and that the parties can prove that the access and use of that information is appropriately restricted. Violation of these and other rules can have significant civil and in some cases even criminal liabilities for companies, plans, plan fiduciaries and company officials that take part in violations of these rules.
Businesses Should Act To Manage Risks
The ADAAA amendments, the Rehabilitation Act’s expanded reach, and the Obama Administration’s emphasis on enforcement make it likely that businesses generally will face more disability claims from a broader range of employees and will have fewer legal shields to defend themselves against these claims. These changes will make it easier for certain employees to qualify and claim protection as disabled under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other disability discrimination laws.
All U.S. businesses should review and tighten the adequacy of their existing compliance and risk management practices to promote and document compliance. These efforts should focus on all relevant hiring, recruitment, promotion, compensation, recordkeeping and reporting policies and practices internally, as well as those of any recruiting agencies, subcontractors or other business partners whose actions might impact on compliance.
In light of these and other developments and risks, businesses generally should act cautiously when dealing with applicants or employees with actual, perceived, or claimed physical or mental impairments to minimize exposures under the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and other laws. Management should exercise caution to carefully and appropriately assess and identify the potential legal significance of physical or mental impairments or conditions that might be less significant in severity or scope, correctable through the use of eyeglasses, hearing aids, daily medications or other adaptive devices, or that management might be tempted to assume fall outside the ADA’s scope.
Likewise, businesses should be ready for the EEOC, OFCCP and the courts to treat a broader range of disabilities, including those much more limited in severity and life activity restriction, to qualify as disabling for purposes of the Act. Businesses should assume that a greater number of employees with such conditions are likely to seek to use the ADA as a basis for challenging hiring, promotion and other employment decisions. For this reason, businesses generally should tighten job performance and other employment recordkeeping to enhance their ability to demonstrate nondiscriminatory business justifications for the employment decisions made by the businesses.
Businesses also should consider tightening their documentation regarding their procedures and processes governing the collection and handling records and communications that may contain information regarding an applicant’s physical or mental impairment, such as medical absences, worker’s compensation claims, emergency information, or other records containing health status or condition related information. The ADA generally requires that these records be maintained in separate confidential files and disclosed only to individuals with a need to know under circumstances allowed by the ADA.
As part of this process, businesses also should carefully review their employment records, group health plan, family leave, disability accommodation, and other existing policies and practices to comply with, and manage exposure under the genetic information nondiscrimination and privacy rules enacted as part of GINA, the health care privacy rules of the HIPAA, and the medical record privacy rules of the ADA. Particular care should be used when planning wellness, health risk assessment, work-related injury, family or other medical leave or related programs, all of which raise particular risks and concerns.
In the face of the rising emphasis of OFCCP, the EEOC and other federal and state agencies on these audit and enforcement activities, government contractors should exercise additional compliance and risk management efforts beyond these generally recommended steps. Among other things, these steps should include the following:
- Government contractors and subcontractors should specifically review their existing or proposed contracts and involvements to identify projects or contracts which may involve federal or state contracts or funding that could trigger responsibility. In this respect, businesses should conduct well-documented inquiries when proposing and accepting contracts to ensure that potential obligations as a government contractor are not overlooked because of inadequate intake procedures. Businesses also should keep in mind that ARRA and other federal program funds often may be filtered through a complex maze of federal grants or program funding to states or other organizations, which may pass along government contractor status and liability when subcontracting for services as part of the implementation of broader programs. Since the existence of these obligations often is signaled by contractual representations in the contracts with these parties, careful review of contractual or bid specifications and commitments is essential. However, it also generally is advisable also to inquire about whether the requested products or services are provided pursuant to programs or contracts subject to these requirements early in the process.
- In addition to working to identify contracts and arrangements that are covered by OFCCP or other requirements, government contractors and other businesses also should reconfirm and continuously monitor the specific reporting, affirmative action, and other requirements that apply to any programs that may be subject to OFCCP requirements to ensure that they fully understand and implement appropriate procedures to comply with these conditions as well as pass along the obligation to make similarly necessary arrangements to any subcontractors or suppliers that the government contractor involves as a subcontractor.
- Throughout the course of the contract, the government contractor also should take steps to maintain and file all required reports and monitor and audit operational compliance with these and other requirements.
- The organization should develop and administer appropriate procedures for monitoring and investigating potential compliance concerns and maintaining documentation of that activity. Any known potential deficiencies or complaints should be promptly investigated and redressed with the assistance of qualified counsel in a prompt manner to mitigate potential risks.
- Documentation should be carefully retained and organized on a real time and continuous basis to faciliate efficiency and effectiveness in completing required reports, monitoring compliance indicators and responding to OFCCP, EEOC or private plaintiff charges as well as other compliance inquiries.
- Any audit inquiries or charges should be promptly referred to qualified legal counsel for timely evaluation and response.
- When available and affordable, management should consider securing appropriate employment practices liability coverage, indemnification from business partners and other liability protection and assurance to help mitigate investigagtion and defense costs.
- Board members or other senior management should include periodic review of compliance in their agenda.