New Definition of Disability Opens Door for EEOC Suits

September 10, 2010 ( - The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has filed three new disability discrimination cases, charging employers in Georgia, Maryland and Michigan with violations of the recently amended Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

The cases — all filed under the broader and simplified definition of disability set forth in the ADA Amendments Act (ADAAA) — allege discrimination against qualified individuals with diabetes, cancer and severe arthritis, according to an EEOC press release.  

The ADA Amendments Act, which went into effect January 1, 2009, makes changes to the definition of the term “disability,” by adding definitions of “substantially limits” and “major life activity” to the law. The new law provides a list of activities that constitute major life activities (see EEOC Proposes ADA Amendments Act Changes).  

In Atlanta, the agency charged Eckerd Corporation, a nationwide drug store chain doing business as Rite Aid with refusing to provide a reasonable accommodation — a stool to sit on — to a long-time employee who experienced severe arthritic symptoms in her knees.  Fern Strickland, who had worked as a cashier for Rite Aid with this reasonable accommodation for seven years without incident, lost the use of her stool in January 2009 when a new district manager decided that the company would no longer accommodate her disability.  According to the EEOC’s pre-suit investigation, the district manager “did not like the idea” that Strickland used a stool.  The suit claims that she was terminated several weeks later because of the manager’s failure to accommodate her disability.  

In a case filed in Baltimore, the agency alleges that surveying company Fisher, Collins & Carter fired two employees because they had diabetes and hypertension.  According to the suit, the company asked Robert Gray and Wayne Seifert and other employees to complete a questionnaire regarding their health conditions and medications.  Gray had worked for the company for 15 years starting as a rodman, and had been promoted to the position of party chief by the time of his termination.  Seifert had been employed since 2000 as a rodman.  The suit asserts that, despite their many years of successful performance, the company unlawfully selected Gray and Seifert for a reduction-in-force on January 21, 2009, on the basis of their disabilities, while retaining less qualified, non-disabled employees.  

In the third case, filed in Lansing, Michigan, the agency charged that IPC Print Services fired one of its employees rather than allowing him to work part time while being treated for cancer.  According to the agency’s pre-suit investigation, Derek Nelson, who had been employed by IPC as a machinist for over ten years, went on medical leave in 2008 in order to undergo chemotherapy.  The EEOC’s suit alleges that in January 2009, when Nelson sought to continue working part-time while he completed his treatment, IPC discharged Nelson for exceeding the maximum hours of leave allowed under company policy.  That decision, the agency contends, violated IPC’s obligation to reasonably accommodate Nelson’s disability.  

In each case, the EEOC conducted an administrative investigation and attempted to reach a voluntary settlement prior to filing suit.