Vanessa Turpin suffered occasional seizures from a mild form of epilepsy. When Sara Lee shut down the plant where Turpin worked, she was transferred to another plant. However, she was bumped off the day shift because a worker coming from a different shuttered plant had 20 years more seniority. Sara Lee based the decision on a company policy that lets workers transfer with their seniority rights.
The company gave Turpin three options: switch to another shift, be laid off with recall rights or take a severance package. She took the money and sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), with backing from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). But the court tossed out her lawsuit.
Why? This court, like virtually all others that have considered the issue, said a company doesn't have to abandon a legitimate, nondiscriminatory policy to accommodate a worker under the ADA. A seniority system is such a policy, the court said, and Sara Lee had followed it for at least 15 years. (EEOC v. Sara Lee Corp., No. 00-1534, 4th Cir., 2001)
Advice: The ADA is a powerful card that employees can play, but it doesn't trump everything in your hand. If you have a legitimate, nondiscriminatory policy that you've followed for years, don't be afraid to follow that policy, even if it makes it impossible for you to grant a requested accommodation to a disabled employee.
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