Walmart Facing EEOC Lawsuit for Disability Discrimination and Retaliation

As a large, big box retailer, Walmart likely has extensive experience addressing various employment issues. Recently, the EEOC filed suit on behalf of a former employer that was terminated for seeking reasonable work accommodation based on their disability at a North Carolina Walmart.

The EEOC alleged in their lawsuit that Walmart violated aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the federal law prohibiting disability discrimination, and Title VII of the Civil Rights of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on an employee’s protected classification.

Facts of EEOC’s Lawsuit Against Walmart

According to the EEOC, the agency has filed suit against the big box retailer for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee suffering from a medical illness. In 2019, a warehouse unloader informed Walmart that they were experiencing severe pain from a neurological illness. The pain was affecting the employee’s right hand and wrist.

The supervisor informed the employee to apply for medical leave via Walmart’s third-party administrator overseeing specific employment policies, including the retailer’s attendance policy. The employee sought a reasonable accommodation in the form of intermittent leave to address the illness causing the disability but was denied.

As the employee attempted to return to work, Walmart’s third-party employment administrator informed the employee that they had to provide a medical release form informing Walmart the employee could return to work without working restrictions. However, due to the employee’s disability, a medical doctor could not provide such a medical release. As a result, the employee was terminated within two weeks of reporting the incident to Walmart’s Global Ethics Office.

Melinda C. Dugas, a regional attorney for the EEOC Charlotte, North Carolina District, stated employers that require “employees to show that they are 100% healed or can otherwise work without any restrictions before returning from medical leave violates public policy and runs afoul of the ADA.” The EEOC is seeking compensatory damages on behalf of the employee’s alleged wrongful termination from Walmart and preventing further misconduct from Walmart in future cases.

What is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)?

The EEOC is the federal agency charged with investigating and adjudicating employment discrimination claims across the United States. If an employee believes they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, the employee can file a complaint with the EEOC to investigate the allegations.

Once a complaint has been filed, the EEOC will inform the employer and require the employer to respond to the complaint. The EEOC will then investigate the nature of the allegations and provide a determination as to whether it believes discrimination occurred. However, in many cases, the EEOC cannot conclude whether an employer has violated the law within its limited investigatory capacity. Instead, it will provide the complainant a right-to-sue letter allowing the employee to file a separate lawsuit.

Typically, the EEOC will file a lawsuit if it believes the employer has violated the law. Further, the EEOC will file lawsuits because it has routinely observed employees complain about a particular employer or finds a public policy interest in filing suit.

What is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)?

Passed and signed into law in 1990, the ADA prevents unlawful discrimination against Americans with physical or mental disabilities. Applicable sections of the ADA prohibit employers from discrimination against current and potential employees on the basis of their disability status. All employers with 15 or more employees after July 26, 1994, are subject to ADA.

Covered Employment Practices

Under the ADA, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against an employee for a disability. The law identifies several unique situations where employers cannot engage in disability-related employment discrimination, including:

  • Employee requirement.
  • Employee wages.
  • Hiring.
  • Promotions and job assignments.
  • Employee training.
  • Employment lay-offs, furloughs, or termination.
  • Leave time and other employment benefits.
  • Any other employment activity.

Protected Disabilities

The ADA defines a protected disability as a physical or mental impairment substantially limiting a significant life activity. The employee must also have a record of the impairment (usually a diagnosis by a physician or medical specialist). The substantial impairment must impact one of the following life activities:

  • Sight.
  • Speech.
  • Hearing
  • Breathing.
  • Walking.
  • Learning.
  • The ability to perform manual tasks.
  • The ability to provide care for oneself.
  • The ability to perform occupational activities associated with work.

Although a person may be protected under the ADA, an eligible employee must be able to perform the essential functions of the position, regardless of the disability. This means the employee must be able to satisfy all job requirements (education, experience, job skills, proper licensure, and qualifications) and perform the essential job tasks with or without reasonable accommodation.

Providing Reasonable Accommodations

A reasonable accommodation is an adjustment to a job or work environment that allows someone suffering from a disability to perform essential job functions without specific parameters interfering with the employee’s daily tasks. Common reasonable accommodations include:

  • Providing the employee with modified equipment or devices.
  • Restructuring tasks without eliminating the essential functions of the job.
  • Providing modified work schedules or remote work options.
  • Reassignment to a vacant position comparable to the employee’s current position.
  • Modification of specific policies, examinations, and training procedures.
  • Providing employment assistance in the form of a reader or interpreter.
  • Providing accessibility options like ramps and elevators.

Although employers are required to provide reasonable accommodations to an employee who has a covered disability, an employer may not provide an employee an accommodation if it causes an undue hardship to the enterprise’s operations. For example, in the Walmart-EEOC case, Walmart could provide the employee with special hand braces or an intermittent work schedule to comply with the law but would not have to cease all warehouse activities until the facility was retrofitted with specialized equipment to accommodate the employee.

The Interactive Process

To properly comply with the ADA, employers must follow a three-step process to ensure they provide reasonable accommodations without intruding on an employee’s privacy. The steps include:

  • Reviewing an accommodation request from the employee or the employee’s healthcare provider.
  • Obtaining written medical permission from the employee to review relevant medical documents regarding the employee’s disability to verify the request.
  • Asking the employee to provide documentation of their disability to determine how best to comply with the requested accommodation.

Although it is not required, it is a best practice for employees to provide documentation of their disability and to engage their employer in an open dialogue to determine how best to address accommodation requests.