Employers Beware: EEOC Stepping Up Disability Discrimination Enforcement

By Jon Hyman

Jun. 2, 2014

Last month, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that it was seeking “public input on potential revisions to the regulations implementing Section 501 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.” That Act governs employment of individuals with disabilities by the federal government, and was the Americans with Disabilities Act’s precursor. Without explanation, the Rehabilitation Act’s regulations impose an obligation on federal agencies to be “model employers” of individuals with disabilities; the EEOC is seeking to revise those regulations to provide a detailed explanation of that “model employer” obligation.

On the heels of that news, 10 of the 22 lawsuits filed or settlements reached by the EEOC in May included allegations of disability discrimination. That’s a .455 batting average for the ADA, which is none too shabby in anyone’s book. Some of the issues addressed by the EEOC in the past month include:

  • A $72,500 settlement with an Akron, Ohio, medical transportation services company, which fired an EMT-paramedic with multiple sclerosis instead of providing additional leave as a reasonable accommodation.
  • A $110,000 settlement with Norfolk Southern Railway Company, which medically disqualified a track maintenance worker because of degenerative disc disease without doing an individualized assessment of whether he could perform the essential functions of his job.
  • A $90,000 settlement with a Tennessee nursing home facility, which terminated an HIV-positive nurse. 
  • An $18,000 settlement with an Alabama athletic apparel retailer, which fired a legally blind sales clerk (who lost his full use of his sight while serving in the Army) without any consideration of whether an accommodation, such as a magnifying glass or a new computer monitor, might be reasonable.
  • A lawsuit claiming a Wisconsin energy company fired an wheelchair-bound employee instead of providing his requested reasonable accommodation of an automatic door opener.
  • A lawsuit claiming a Tennessee steel company refused to hire an applicant for a maintenance position after learning through a pre-employment medical examination that the applicant took prescription medications for an anxiety disorder and high blood pressure.
  • A lawsuit claiming a Connecticut electrical contractor refused to hire a dyslexic carpenter, without first exploring any possible reasonable accommodations for his disability.
What do all of these cases have in common? They all involve employers that failed, in some way, to engage an employee or applicant in the interactive process to determine if he or she could perform the essential functions of the job with, or without, a reasonable accommodation. Instead, the employer appears to have made snap judgments based on the individual’s disability and related stereotypes.

Disability discrimination is very much on the EEOC’s radar. Is your business sufficiently protected? Answer these questions—
  • Do you have a reasonable accommodation policy? 
  • Do you have accurately written job descriptions
  • Do your managers and supervisors know what the interactive process is, and how to engage in it? 
  • Have you trained your employees on disability awareness and reasonable accommodations? 

Unless you have answered “yes” to each of these important questions, your business is exposed to potential disability-discrimination issues. Considering how closely the EEOC is looking at these issues, is this risk is one your business wants to take?

Jon Hyman is a partner in the Employment & Labor practice at Wickens Herzer Panza. Contact Hyman at

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