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Rely on individual disability accommodations; you won’t be targeted for a class action

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Here’s a bit of good news for employers: While class-action lawsuits have been all the rage in recent years, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to expand the types of cases that can become class-action claims when the ADA is at the heart of the case.

Essentially, because the ADA requires an individualized assessment of whether an employee is disabled or not, it isn’t practical to try the cases together.

That’s true even if the claim is based on an employer’s alleged companywide discriminatory rule or policy. Such so-called “pattern and practices” cases are allowed for cases involving other forms of discrimination, such as race bias. By bringing such cases together, courts can more efficiently adjudicate them. Employees with damage claims that are individually small can add their damages together.

Now, employers won’t have to worry about million-dollar awards in ADA class actions.

Recent case: Mark Hohider and several other former UPS employees filed an ADA lawsuit. They alleged that after they took time off for medical problems, they were not allowed to return.

Chief among their allegations was that UPS had an informal policy of only allowing those employees who were “100% healed” to return. They also claimed that employees were denied the right to reasonable accommodations and that the company’s job descriptions were all written to include lifting requirements that ensured disabled applicants would not get jobs.

The former employees persuaded a trial court to approve a class action based on the companywide (but apparently unwritten) rule.

UPS appealed, and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. It reasoned that whether an employee or applicant is disabled is a fact-intensive question that must be handled on an individual basis. A class action therefore isn’t appropriate. Each of the employees will have to bring individual lawsuits, and will have to prove they were disabled and denied a reasonable accommodation. (Hohider, et al., v. UPS, No. 07-4588, 3rd Cir., 2009)

Final notes: Of course, UPS will still have to defend its policies.

A blanket requirement that employees be 100% healed before returning to work has the potential to discriminate against those who are disabled under the ADA. But as a practical matter, most employees who return from medical leave probably aren’t disabled, since the ADA definition requires they show that they have a condition that substantially limits a major life activity like walking, breathing, seeing, talking or working. That’s a tough definition to meet without significant residual problems.

UPS will also have to defend its blanket job-description requirement that employees be able to lift substantial weight. While that may be reasonable for drivers and delivery helpers, it isn’t likely to be a reasonable requirement for a secretary or janitor, for example. Remember, you must be prepared to justify why you believe something is a major function of the job.

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