A federal district court ruled in April 2014 that obesity itself may be a disability, amounting to the first shot in a war of lawsuits on grounds of obesity discrimination and opening up additional liability for workers' compensation claims across the country.
The case is Joseph Whittaker v. America’s Car-Mart, in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Although the case is pending in Missouri, the implications apply nationwide because the court is applying provisions of the ubiquitous Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The plaintiff claims the company, a car dealership chain, fired him from his job as a general manager after seven years of employment even though he was able to perform all essential functions of his job, with or without accommodations. He alleges that “severe obesity … is a physical impairment within the meaning of the ADA,” and that the company regarded him as being substantially limited in the major life activity of walking.
Attorneys for the company had moved to dismiss the case, arguing that obesity was not a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and citing language from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that, “except in rare circumstances, obesity is not considered a disabling impairment.”
The judge rejected the company’s position, noting: “Plaintiff has sufficiently pled a claim that he is disabled within the meaning of the ADA.”
The plaintiff’s argument could be seen as a legal extension of the medical policy change made by the American Medical Association in June 2013, when the AMA adopted a policy that recognizes obesity as a disease.
Application to workers' compensation
One of the main issues in many workers' compensation claims is whether the employee is able to return to work in the open labor market. If the employee can’t, there is a focus on whether the inability to return to work was caused by the work accident alone, or is caused by pre-existing conditions, or a combination of the pre-existing disabilities and the work-related injuries. Claims are then adjudicated based on the primary cause of the inability to return to work.
Although most states have statutes that limit an award for permanent total disability benefits to those situations where the work injury alone is the cause, the practice is must different. For example, if a claimant has pre-existing disabilities and is then injured at work and cannot return to the workforce, judges are often reluctant to award minimal benefits, knowing that the claimant cannot ever return to work. It is much easier for the judge to find that the work injury alone is the primary cause and to award permanent total disability benefits even if the work injuries are only part of the equation.
Once obesity is accepted as a valid disability, injured workers could more easily argue that their obesity is a permanent condition that impedes their ability to return to work, as opposed to a temporary life-choice that can be reversed.
Injured workers could more easily qualify for Social Security disability benefits and for permanent total disability benefits, as the work injury is usually the last event in a chain of events (including, now, a history of obesity).
Once again, employers are being asked to shoulder not only the responsibilities of a work injury but also the responsibility of dealing with issues that have little, if any, relationship to the work environment.
After the ADA became law in 1993, I remember hearing the Americans with Disabilities Act referred to as “The Lawyers Full Employment Act.” Unfortunately, that moniker is now coming closer to reality.
Not so fast! If an employer has 15 or more employees, it is subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and/or a state disability accommodation law with a different threshold for applicability. In this instance, even though you acted appropriately in terms of not discriminating based on a work-related injury in violation of workers’ compensation law, you have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act for failing to engage in the interactive process to determine if there is any reasonable accommodation that would have allowed the employee to return to work for you — perhaps in a different job. Failing to engage in the interactive process prior to terminating a disabled employee is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and would subject you to legal liability resulting from the termination.
Okay, so maybe you knew about that issue. But what about the other employment law moguls out there just waiting for you? Let’s explore some of the common — and maybe not so common — employment practices law issues that face nonprofits, how to guard against mistakes, what it can cost if you do err, and how insurance fits into the picture.
Timing Really Is Everything
Culled from the claims files of the Nonprofits’ Insurance Alliance of California (NIAC) and the Alliance of Nonprofits for Insurance (ANI), member companies in the Nonprofits Insurance Alliance Group (NIA Group) that insures over 11,500 nonprofits around the country, here are just a few examples of seemingly appropriate terminations by 501(c)(3) nonprofits that failed to withstand scrutiny because of their timing.
- A couple of disruptive employees whose paychecks had been withheld for failure to have reports done on time filed a complaint about not being paid and were then terminated. (Two strikes on this one!) First, most states prohibit withholding paychecks just for poor performance. Second, terminating these two employees after they complained resulted in valid claims under the state’s “whistleblower” laws.
- A poorly performing employee complained of sexual harassment. A thorough investigation concluded no harassment had taken place. The employee was then terminated on performance grounds alone. Problem — no contemporaneous documentation of the alleged poor performance existed, so it appeared to the state administrative agency that the termination was a result of the harassment allegation because it followed closely behind the report of it.
- A long-term employee of an elder daycare facility, who was a “mandatory reporter” under state law, filed a report with the state about inadequate staffing at the facility when an elderly client was left unattended and was found wandering around in traffic. She was terminated for not following “internal reporting procedures” (in this case a warning was the appropriate remedy, not immediate termination).
So What’s An Employer To Do?
Let’s start with the exposures under Employment Practices Liability (EPL) that give rise to liability claims. Both federal — and most state — laws proscribe the most commonly known unfair employment practices of wrongful termination, sexual harassment, discrimination and ADA violations. Embedded in each of those categories, however, are some lesser known prohibitions and strict liabilities.
By now most everyone knows that in most jurisdictions you can’t terminate someone based on age, race, gender, or sexual preference. But what if a poor performing employee is the only one working for your nonprofit that’s in a protected category? Termination here may have the appearance of discrimination sufficient to subject you to administrative or civil exposure.
You know that sexual harassment is illegal and that procedures need to be in place to train supervisory and management personnel about its ins and outs. But what if you’re in a state that imposes strict liability on an employer, even if the employer didn’t know the harassment was occurring? Or what about a delivery person that’s been making inappropriate suggestions to your receptionist, or if the delivery person believes that one of your employees has been harassing him or her? That can get you into as much trouble as the typical case.
So, what to do? Defense of Employment Practices Liability claims starts with your agency having documented procedures in place that you and your counsel can use to demonstrate to an administrative agency or a court that you intended to be — and were — in compliance. This is best accomplished from the beginning with a robust personnel handbook that includes policy statements and procedures around at least 12 key subjects.
Twelve Components of a Model Personnel Handbook
Following are twelve components that we recommend all personnel handbooks contain:
- Introductory Statements
- Nondiscrimination and Sexual Harassment
- Organization and Structure
- Training and Orientation
- Employee Classifications and Categories
- Employment Policies, Including Wage and Hour Regulations
- Benefits Disclaimer
- Leaves of Absence and Time Off
- Standards of Performance
- Workplace Violence Prevention and Safety
- Search and Inspection
- Drug-Free Workplace
At a minimum, the handbook should include statements regarding at-will employment, probationary, introductory or benefit waiting periods, and examples of disciplinary offenses (always prefaced with “including, but not limited to” language). Always have employees sign a written acknowledgment that they have read and understand the policies, or you might as well not have created them in the first place.
Next comes training and adherence. Regardless of size, every nonprofit needs to train its management personnel about the employment laws relevant to their jurisdiction and the policies and procedures the agency has adopted. Include here any state mandates such as sexual harassment training for supervisory personnel. Then, walk the talk! Follow those policies and procedures diligently — every day. Oh, and did you remember to include your board members in the training? They are at risk as much as the Executive Director because they are ultimately responsible for the agency’s overall management.
The Old “Ounce Of Prevention”
The last, and most overlooked, step in Employment Practices Liability claim prevention is checking in with experienced employment counsel before taking a significant personnel action. A poorly drafted employment offer letter can bind you for a lot more than you thought. So can the improperly announced new personnel policy or procedure — even if it’s meant to be a “positive” for employees.
More than anything else, however, is every Employment Practices Liability defense lawyer’s wish that you consult counsel before termination. There would be obvious questions about clear documentation of performance issues, protected classes of employees, and compliance with your own policies and procedures, but some circumstances might require some “drill down” inquiry. Suppose a health issue, disclosed or not, is involved. Is the employee perhaps entitled to an ADA accommodation? What about Family and Medical Leave Act entitlement, or workers’ compensation benefits?
Always, always, check with counsel experienced in employment law. Some are available on a pro bono basis — check with your local bar association. A number of Directors and Officers and Employment Practices Liability insurance carriers provide this service to their policyholders, although sometimes on a limited basis. So ask them if they do. If they don’t, ask them for a referral. At ANI-RRG and NIAC, we feel so strongly about the importance of our members getting good advice before they take an important employment action that we have three experienced labor law attorneys dedicated solely to providing preventative advice on this subject to our member-insureds.
And The New “Pound of Flesh”
If you haven’t heard or read about it, employment practices law is one of the latest and greatest fertile fields for aggressive plaintiff’s attorneys. It matters not that you are a charitable nonprofit (particularly if you have good insurance limits). Six-figure jury verdicts have become more frequent, particularly in metropolitan areas where the majority of the nonprofit sector does its work. Need convincing? Think about this data from ten recent years of our closed claim files:
- One out of every 100 nonprofits (regardless of size) will have an EPL claim this year
- 97% of all claims against directors’ and officers’ policies are in the EPL category
- The average cost to defend when a claim has some merit is $29,000 and the average loss on those claims is $44,000 — a combined average of $73,000
- 40% of EPL claims have some merit and when they do, one in ten will cost more than $100,000
- When claims do not have merit, the average cost to defend is only $5,000, thanks to early intervention by our experienced employment defense counsel
- The two largest claims cost $1 million and $400,000 respectively
Did You Say Something About Insurance?
Unless you have tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars just sitting around, you probably want to think about how your agency can protect itself in this vulnerable area and one other that directors and officers should be concerned about.
When Employment Practices Liability claims first came into vogue years ago, the insurance industry’s “knee jerk” reaction was to find a way to exclude the exposure. Smarter heads prevailed, fortunately, so that today EPL coverage is readily available. But like many things, it comes in different shapes and sizes, and not always where you think it is.
Let’s talk first about Employment Practices Liability as a stand-alone coverage. It’s available and commonly protects the nonprofit from damages claimed as a result of an adverse employment action. The defense component provides for payment of attorney fees and costs, and the indemnification component provides for payment of actual damages, if any. There are exclusions as discussed below.
It is more common, however, to find EPL coverage as either an attachment to, or embedded in, the nonprofit’s Directors and Officers (D&O) coverage. The components are generally the same as described above. Key issues to consider are detailed below, but look out for some tricky provisions such as the one that requires your consent before the carrier settles a claim, but makes you responsible for all the ongoing legal expenses if you don’t accept the carrier’s recommendation.
Typical exclusions include fines, penalties and sanctions (these are uninsurable risks), back wages, multiplied damages and plaintiff’s attorney’s fees. Wage and hour claims are one of the biggest uncovered liabilities that a nonprofit faces. Properly classifying an employee as exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Standards Labor Act (or similar state laws) can be tricky business and sometimes requires extra sensory powers of hindsight. To be properly classified as exempt, an employee must make a threshold salary as defined by federal and state law and pass the duties test of either the professional, executive or administrative exemptions. While most insurance policies do not cover payment of back wages and penalties, a few at least provide some defense costs to cover wage and hour claims.
So what are the key EPL components of a good D&O policy? At a minimum, expect the following:
Adequate policy limits
- $1 million is generally adequate for small to mid-size nonprofits. Larger agencies should consider higher limits or an umbrella policy.
Broad definition of who is an insured
- Is the nonprofit agency itself insured in addition to its directors and officers?
- What about prior directors and officers?
- Committee members?
- Employees and volunteers? (Volunteers don’t have all the federal or state immunities you may think.)
Broad coverage for employment practices liability
- Either by endorsement or imbedded in the D&O policy itself
Duty to defend
- Does it extend to administrative proceedings (where most EPL claims start) or just to suits in civil courts?
Advancing of defense costs
- The carrier should pay for defense costs as incurred, not after the nonprofit has paid for them and is seeking reimbursement
Make sure that you understand your policy before you need to use it. For example, be sure that you understand when you need to report facts that may result in employment practices liability. For example, you may decide not to report to the insurer an employee grievance filed with your Human Resources Department pertaining to the employee’s termination, perhaps thinking that a legal claim may not develop from it. Unbeknownst to you, your policy may require you to report potential claims, including grievances filed with your HR Department. By the time the terminated employee files a legal complaint with the district court, the reporting period has passed and your insurer may deny coverage.
Don’t be disappointed if your insurance carrier insists on using defense counsel of its own choosing. It has the right to do so and generally has developed over time a panel of attorneys experienced in employment law defense who understand the nonprofit sector better than most.
While not directly EPL-related, make sure your Directors & Officers policy also protects you for fiduciary liability claims such as failure to properly account for grant funds.
If unsure about the nature and extent of your Employment Practices Liability coverage, by all means consult with your insurance agent or broker. They are usually paid commissions when they place your coverage, and providing appropriate advice is part of what they are paid for — and a service you have a right to expect.
AOECOE – Not Just Another Acronym
California Senate Bill 863 was passed in the fall of 2012 and went into effect on January 1, 2013. Senate Bill 1062 was just signed into law by Governor Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and will take effect January 1, 2014. On April 30, 2013, Tennessee Governor, Bill Haslam, signed into effect Senate Bill 200. House Bill 154 is expected to go into effect in Georgia in July, 2013. What are these bills? The first of many sweeping Workers' Compensation reforms. A common theme in these bills and other pending reforms is to level the playing field for employers and accept only those claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment, AOECOE.
A well-known term of art in the Workers' Compensation arena, AOECOE is not just an acronym. It is transitioning from a term of art to a statement with teeth, as reforms are actually including such wording into bills. The purpose of doing this is to establish whether an employee's alleged injury is work-related and happened in the course and scope of employment, or whether the injury is non-industrial or affected by third parties.
Workers' Compensation is a no fault system and thus benefits the injured worker, as, in order to receive benefits, he or she does not need to prove that the employer was negligent. However, it is the injured party's burden to show that the injury did, in fact, occur while at work, while employed as an employee and while undertaking some activity for the benefit of the employer. The injury itself must have been caused by the accident or employment conditions, and not from some other non-industrial related factors or degenerative factors.
The determination of AOECOE has long been an OSHA policy. OSHA's Injury and Illness Recordkeeping Regulation Section 1904.5: Determination of work-relatedness contained under section (a) basic requirement states in order for an injury or illness to be work-related an event or exposure in the work environment is either caused or contributed to the resulting condition or significantly aggravated a pre-existing injury or illness. Work-relatedness is presumed for injuries and illnesses resulting from events or exposures occurring in the work environment.
California's SB 863 was signed into law by Governor Brown on September 18, 2012, for a January 1, 2013, effective date. While certainly not the first bill to consider AOECOE issues, it is one of the most significant Workers' Compensation reform bills to specify AOECOE language. SB 863 calls for an Independent Medical Review (IMR). While this process may be problematic for an employer, since an IMR can be requested only by an injured worker following a denial, modification, or delay of a treatment request through the utilization review (UR) process, the bill specifically states that this does not apply if the injury is in question for AOECOE reasons.
On May 8, 2013, Oklahoma Governor Fallin signed into law historic Workers' Compensation reform, Senate Bill 1062. The bill defines compensable injury as arising out of the course and scope of employment and does not include: any strain, degeneration damage or harm to disease or condition of the eye or musculoskeletal structure or other body part resulting from the natural result of aging, osteoarthritis, degenerative process or pre-existing, except if a treating physician clearly confirms an identifiable and significant aggravation arising out of AOECOE.
On April 29, 2013, Tennessee Governor Haslam signed a Workers' Compensation reform bill into law, SB 200. It specifies that injuries arise out of and in the course and scope of employment only if proven by a preponderance of evidence that employment contributed more than 50% to causing the injury, AOECOE.
In my experience, the majority of injuries are real, but they are not AOECOE. Injured parties may exaggerate the severity and extent of their injuries or may attempt to hide pre-existing conditions. So how do any employers determine if injuries are AOECOE? The answer is simple. They need to ascertain what the employees' statuses are pre-injury. This is effectively done with baseline testing.
Baseline testing is a bookend solution. To be effective, it should be objective, meet the criteria for evidenced-based medicine, be job related and consistent with medical necessity. It needs to be specific to the metrics being evaluated. A good example of a specific baseline test that is recognized in some jurisdictions by statute is audiometric testing. Hearing tests are routinely done in environments with high noise exposure to determine a baseline that is referenced once a claim is filed. This is commonly referred to as the lock box defense.
Audiometric testing is beneficial for documenting hearing loss but is not designed to address other conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). MSDs are the most frequent and costly claims for an employer. In order for a baseline test to be utilized for MSD, it must not only be objective and reproducible, it must contain measurements to ascertain electromyography (EMG), range of motion (ROM) and function.
In addition, baseline testing must be legally defensible. In 1990, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act that outlines what makes a legally defensible test. To be legally defensible, the testing needs to be job-related and consistent with business necessity i.e. the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs. It must be repeatable, objective and address functionality. Also, since baseline testing is considered to be a medical exam, it needs to evaluate some functions of the job.
Baseline testing is not a post-offer, pre-placement test, as it can not identify disability because the data is not read and no hiring decisions are made with baseline evaluations. When a work-related injury occurs, a post loss test is conducted, at which time the baseline test is read and compared to the post loss results, hence the bookends.
When compared, the results can determine if an injury exists and if it has arisen out of the course and scope of employment, thus determining an employer's true responsibility. Good baseline testing is non-discriminatory and prevents “false” claims. The sweeping Workers' Compensation reforms allow for a new definition of “false” claim: one that is not AOECOE. A false claim no longer means fraud! A proven example of an effective baseline test is the EFA-STM.
Workers' Compensation statutes are helping employers by allowing them to accept the claims that are only AOECOE. Employers need to see that they comply with legislation, and baseline testing now gives them an objective assessment to do just that.
Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 which included the terms “job-related and consistent with business necessity” in Section 703(k) of Title VII as part of a Congressional compromise. The amendment to the act which went into effect in 2008 did not affect the business necessity provision.
Case law regarding business necessity is very limited; however, a recent case in point is Atkins v. Salazar, 2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 25238 (5th Cir., Dec. 12, 2011), in which the Fifth Circuit issued an instructive opinion analyzing the business necessity defense in the context of diabetes.
The Fifth Circuit described the business necessity standard as follows:
For a qualification to be “job-related,” “the employer must demonstrate that the qualification standard is necessary and related to 'the specific skills and physical requirements of the sought-after position.'” Similarly, for a qualification standard to be “consistent with business necessity,” the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs.
The court further noted, based on an earlier ruling, that it must “take into account the magnitude of possible harm as well as the probability of occurrence … the probability of the occurrence is discounted by the magnitude of its consequences.”
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, not only must a medical exam be job-related, it must also be consistent with business necessity. This means that the medical exam must relate to the essential functions of the job. The medical exam must test the ability to perform the primary functions of the job. For example, if you are a cashier at a grocery store, the essential functions of your job would be to ring people up and help them bag their items. Any medical exam your employer required would have to be related to how you perform those functions in order to be consistent with business necessity. It is important to note that as long as the medical exam evaluates some function of the job, it should satisfy the elements of business necessity.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer may have the ability to make disability-related inquiries or require medical examination. After the applicant is given a conditional job offer, but before starting work, an employer may make disability-related inquiries and conduct medical examinations, regardless of whether they are related to the job, as long as it does so for all entering employees in the same job category (post-offer). After employment has commenced, an employer may make disability-related inquiries and require medical examinations only if they are job-related and consistent with business necessity.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that all medical information obtained during such inquiries or testing be treated as confidential medical information. While this provision covers all employees, only disability-related inquiries and medical examinations are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act's restrictions. A disability-related inquiry is defined as asking questions or testing that is designed to elicit information about a person's disability. Therefore, questions or testing that is not designed to ask or evaluate information about an individual's disability are not prohibited under the ADA.
A medical test as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act is a procedure or test that seeks information about an individual's physical or mental impairments or health. Factors that determine if it is a medical test include:
- whether the test is administered by a health care professional;
- whether the test is interpreted by a health care professional;
- whether the test is designed to reveal an impairment or physical or mental health;
- whether the test is invasive;
- whether the test measures an employee's performance of a task or measures his/her physiological responses to performing the task;
- whether the test normally is given in a medical setting; and,
- whether medical equipment is used.
The topic of medical testing, especially functional testing, is a controversial subject. In the fall of 2009 two major case precedents brought to light these very issues — Indergard vs. Georgia Pacific and the class action lawsuit brought against Sears. On September 29, 2009, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a record-setting consent decree resolving a class lawsuit against Sears, Roebuck and Co. under the Americans with Disabilities Act for $6.2 million.
These recent rulings bear out that the Functional Capacity Evaluation (FCE) may be a medical exam. Even when classified as medical evaluations, Functional Capacity Evaluations don't physically correlate with true physiological function. The issue becomes whether or not these tests are able to accurately or objectively test for functionality. These rulings illustrate that Functional Capacity Evaluations that contain validity measurements that are subjective observations, do not correlate with effort and are not consistent with affected body parts are not legally defensible.
As we have seen with the Indergad and Sears cases, courts are examining these issues closely and unless there is an objective assessment, the employer or carrier is left virtually unprotected. For ADA compliance, the testing needs to be repeatable, objective, and address functionality.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, an employer may not require a current employee to undergo a medical examination unless the examination “is shown to be job-related and consistent with business necessity.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(d) (4) (A). This section applies to all employees, whether or not they are disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Indergard decision clearly demonstrates the need for an objective measure of performance that must conform with business necessity.
In addition, recent case law — EEOC vs. Celadon Trucking — illustrates that if an individual does not meet the essential functions of the job, an employer needs to enter into the interactive process for the position for which they were applying or for any other open position for which the candidate is qualified.
Given all the legal mandates for the ADA and EEOC, coupled with state workers' compensation laws and Federal Mandatory reporting issues for work-related injuries, why do post-offer pre-placement tests? A better solution is baseline testing or a book end solution.
The Americans with Disabilities Act regulates testing that has the potential to evaluate a disability. So if a baseline test is non-invasive, captures the essential functions of the job with not only a reliable validity measurement but with an objective assessment of the muskuloskeltal system and is not read at the time of testing, it is not only acceptable under ADA but technically outside the scope. Why? Data is not evaluated at the time of the baseline test so no disability is identified and no medical questions are asked. It can be done at post-offer or with existing employees.
The book end solution is completed when there is a work-related incident, another test is performed under the workers' compensation pending case, and the results are compared. In the work-related case, the medical evaluation post loss test is allowed and not a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Appropriate releases are signed prior to conducting the baseline testing, and the data is kept confidential. If no work-related injury occurs, the baseline data is never interpreted.
In summary, according to the Fifth Circuit ruling in the Atkins case, for a qualification standard to be “consistent with business necessity,” the employer must show that it “substantially promote[s]” the business' needs. The business needs in the case of baseline tests are to provide better and faster treatment for the injured worker and to accept claims that arise out of the course and scope of employment.