With the closing of the first month of the federal government’s 2011 fiscal year, employers may be curious to know what the EEOC’s litigation landscape looks like. For instance, what type of employers are being sued, and for what? Importantly, what can employers learn from the EEOC’s litigation efforts? A review of recently filed lawsuits that the EEOC has announced in its October press releases found that few claims have been brought under recently passed laws and only a small portion of the defending employers are Fortune 500 companies.
The Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (“ADAAA”) and the Genetics Information Nondiscrimination Act (“GINA”) have created areas ripe for litigation. Among the lawsuits announced by the EEOC during October, however, none includes a claim brought under GINA and only one suit includes a claim under the ADAAA.
Since October 1, the EEOC has announced in press releases that it has filed 19 lawsuits against private employers. Disability discrimination and retaliation tie for the most causes of action — each are included in seven of the 19 complaints. Nearly all of the disability discrimination claims include a claim that the employer failed to provide the allegedly disabled employee with a reasonable accommodation. Only one of the disability claims is brought under the ADAAA. The ADAAA requires that the definition of “disability” be interpreted broadly, and overrules the interpretive framework that Supreme Court case law had established.
The prevalence of disability discrimination and retaliation claims is not a surprise. In the press release announcing the filing of one of the EEOC’s lawsuits earlier this month, the EEOC’s San Francisco District Director Michael Baldonado noted that, in fiscal year 2009, retaliation had overtaken race discrimination as the most often alleged cause of action. The EEOC’s reported litigation statistics show that disability discrimination charges reached record levels in fiscal year 2009, and had increased nearly 10% over the previous year.
Sex discrimination, including sexually hostile work environment claims, was a close second behind the causes of action tied for first. Race and religious discrimination claims were the next most prevalent causes of action, as each appeared in three of the complaints. One race and one sex discrimination claim also alleged that the employer had paid lower wages to the charging party as compared to similarly situated employees outside of the charging party’s protected category.
Only two of the 18 defending employers (two suits have been filed against one employer) are Fortune 500 companies. Available information suggests that about the same number of defending employers in the remaining 16 lawsuits employ less than 100 employees as employ between 100 and 10,000 employees.
The lawsuits filed this month by the EEOC suggest that (1) no particular type of employer is being targeted, and (2) employers should pay close attention to their obligations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. If a disabled employee requests an accommodation for a disability, the employer has an obligation to discuss potential accommodations with that employee. These suits also remind employers to ensure that employee complaints of harassment or other unlawful discrimination are responded to promptly and appropriately. If an employee has complained about discrimination or harassment, make doubly sure that any subsequent adverse action taken against that employee is firmly based on reasons that are legitimate, non-discriminatory, and have no connection to the employee’s prior complaint.