Princeton Healthcare Pays $1.35 Million to Settle Disability Discrimination Suit

princeton02Hospital Fired Employees After 12 Weeks of Leave, Federal Agency Says

Princeton HealthCare System, which operates the University Medical Center of Princeton at Plainsboro and several other medical facilities, will pay $1.35 million and will undertake significant remedial measures to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the agency announced today.

The EEOC’s suit alleged that the hospital’s fixed leave policy failed to consider leave as a reasonable accommodation, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the EEOC, Princeton HealthCare’s leave policy merely tracked the requirements of the federal Family Medical Leave Act and employee leaves were limited to a maximum of 12 weeks. The policy meant that employees who were not eligible for leave were fired after being absent for a short time, and many more were fired once they were out more than 12 weeks.

The EEOC filed suit in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey after attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

Under the consent decree settling the suit, approved by U.S. Magistrate Judge Douglas E. Arpert, the hospital is prohibited from having a blanket policy that limits the amount of leave time an employee covered by theAmericans with Disabilities Act may take. Princeton HealthCare must instead engage in an interactive process with covered employees, including employees with a disability related to pregnancy, when deciding how much leave is needed.

Princeton HealthCare also can no longer require employees returning from disability leave to present a fitness for duty certification stating that they are able to return to work without any restrictions. Princeton HealthCare also agreed that it will not subject employees to progressive discipline for ADA-related absences, and will provide training on the Americans with Disabilities Act to its workforce.

The EEOC will monitor Princeotn HealthCare’s compliance with the decree over the next four years and will distribute the $1.35 million to employees who were unlawfully terminated under Princeton HealthCare’s former policy.

“This is the latest in a series of cases challenging unlawful leave policies, and the relief obtained here furthers the EEOC’s efforts to reinvigorate the Americans with Disabilities Act following the 2008 amendments,” EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said. “While the EEOC is always careful and cautious before resorting to litigation, our efforts here should encourage employers to voluntarily comply with the ADA.”

“Employers must understand that fixed leave policies, by definition, limit the opportunity for the employee and employer to engage in the interactive process and determine whether leave may be a reasonable accommodation under the federal law,” EEOC Senior Trial Attorney Rosemary DiSavino said.

Addressing emerging and developing issues under the ADA is one of six national priorities identified by the EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan.

“This case should send a clear message that a leave of absence is a reasonable accommodation under the law,” said Robert D. Rose, regional attorney of EEOC’s New York District Office. “Policies that limit the amount of leave, even if they comply with other laws, violate the ADA when they call for the automatic firing of employees with a disability after they reach a rigid, inflexible leave limit.”

A Princeton HealthCare spokesman said the hospital is pleased to resolve this matter with the EEOC. The hospital issued the following statement.

“The case involved a human resource policy that was in place a number of years ago and was changed in 2010. As part of this settlement, the EEOC has reviewed the Hospital’s current policies and our ongoing program for training employees and supervisors, and has stated that it has no objection to the Hospital’s current policies and training program,” the statement reads. “In this lawsuit, the EEOC claimed that 23 employees were negatively impacted by the previous policy. Although the Hospital disagrees that the prior policy violated the ADA and challenged the claims, the Hospital has agreed to resolve those matters in order to avoid the very high cost and disruption of operations caused by the ongoing litigation. The Hospital has always been and remains fully committed to a workplace free of any discrimination.”