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Recent EEOC Lawsuit Shows Danger of Requiring Employees with Disabilities to Provide Full Medical Releases

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The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) affects all Tennessee businesses with 15 or more employees, requiring them to make “reasonable accommodations” for employees with a known disability. Determining when an employee’s requested accommodation or need for extended leave is reasonable, or when it would pose an unfair burden on the business, is one of the questions that employers often struggle to answer. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently filed a lawsuit in New York federal court questioning an employer’s ability to terminate employees who are unable to continue in or return to their positions without accommodations. Should the EEOC succeed in its lawsuit, this case could have significant implications for Tennessee employers. Read on to learn about the case and the implications it has for your workplace disability policies.

The case, titled EEOC v. M&T Bank Corp., charged that the employer failed to accommodate bank branch employees who notified the bank of a disability or a need for accommodation and instead placed or kept them on involuntary leave unless and until they could provide a certification from a medical provider stating that they could work with “no restrictions.” Employees who did not provide a medical clearance soon enough were discharged. For example, the suit claims, when one bank teller was diagnosed with Achilles tendonitis and bone spurs and prescribed a cam walker boot, the bank required her to take involuntary leave instead of simply permitting her to wear the boot at work. When her condition did not improve quickly, the bank terminated her, even though she could have easily performed her job while wearing the boot. Other bank employees were treated similarly, the EEOC said.

Tennessee small businesses should take note that policies governing an employee’s need for reasonable accommodation in order to work or to return to work from disability leave should not include hard and fast rules like those alleged in the EEOC’s suit. Remember that, should the employee be terminated and file a complaint, courts will look for proof that the employer and employee had a dialogue about the accommodation the employee needed to continue in or return to the job. Make sure employees know that they can request accommodations without automatically being placed on leave or required to remain on leave. Also, don’t give employees the impression that they’ll automatically be fired if they run out of leave. The ADA requires employers to consider additional leave as a reasonable accommodation where such leave will enable the employee to return to work in a reasonable time. These considerations can help prevent an expensive lawsuit.

By consulting with an experienced employment attorney, employers in Tennessee and elsewhere can make sure that all of their existing policies are in compliance with federal and Tennessee employment disability laws. For assistance with a Tennessee employment law question regarding leave, wrongful termination, or discrimination, contact the knowledgeable and effective Memphis employment lawyer Cary Schwimmer for a consultation, at 901-753-5537.

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