EEOC: Employer Violated ADA in Refusing Employee More Time Off for Medical Recovery

Employers that take a my-way-or-the-highway stance toward employees who need a little more time off to recover from illness or surgery stand a good chance of being sued over their decisionmaking. A North Carolina company now faces a summons from the federal government to appear in court and answer for its behavior.

Heritage Home Group, LLC (Heritage Home), a North Carolina corporation that designs, manufactures, sources and retails home furnishings, violated federal law when it denied a reasonable accommodation to one of its employees and then fired him, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit filed Jan. 31.

According to the EEOC’s complaint, Heritage Home hired Michael Woods to work as a machine operator at its Hickory Chair Company manufacturing plant in Hickory, N.C., in October 2015. Woods, a diabetic, developed an infection in one of his toes in March 2016. Woods underwent an operation to have the toe amputated, and was subsequently diagnosed with peripheral neuropathy in both feet. The EEOC said that around April 8, 2016, Woods, who was out of work on short-term disability leave, informed Heritage Home of his anticipated return to work the first week of June, since he needed the additional leave to recover fully. In a letter dated April 29, 2016, Heritage Home informed Woods that it was terminating his employment because he would not be able to return to work until then.

Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals with a disability unless doing so would be an undue hardship. The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Statesville Division (EEOC v. Heritage Home Group, LLC, Civil Action No. 5:18-cv-00018) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The EEOC seeks back pay, compensatory damages and punitive damages, as well as injunctive relief.

“The obligation to accommodate an employee with a disability so that he or she can retain the job is a fundamental aspect of the ADA,” said Lynette A. Barnes, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Charlotte District Office. “Employers must be careful to give employees a fair chance to make a full recovery from disability-related conditions and return to productive work when the company can do so without undue hardship.”

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