Back to the Drawing Board for EEOC Wellness Program Rules

On August 22 the U.S. District Court in D.C. granted summary judgment to the AARP which challenged the EEOC’s rules governing employer wellness programs. The rules allow an employer to offer or impose on an employee financial incentives or financial penalties depending on participation in an employer wellness program. The Court chose not to vacate the EEOC’s rules for the time being, but instructed the EEOC to explain its rationale for setting a 30% maximum on the incentive or penalty, which would be applied to the employee‘s premium cost,  to determine whether disclosure of the employee’s personal medical information is voluntary, instead of determining that any employer wellness program requiring disclosure of personal medical information is involuntary and therefore unlawful. AARP v. U.S. EEOC, (D.D.C. Aug. 22, 2017).

Under ACA, health insurance plans may lawfully offer an incentive of up to 30% of the cost of coverage, in exchange for the employee’s participation in a health-contingent wellness program. These employer-sponsored wellness programs often involve the collection of personal medical information, which implicates substantive protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), both enforced by the EEOC.

Both the ADA and GINA permit employers to collect personal medical information as part of a wellness program if the employee provides the information voluntarily. In May 2016, the EEOC issued an ADA rule stating that imposing a penalty or offering an incentive capped at 30% of the cost of self-only coverage that requires disclosure of ADA-protected information, does not render participation in the wellness program involuntary. Similarly, the EEOC issued a GINA rule allowing employers to offer the same 30% incentives for disclosure of a spouse’s medical information in the course of wellness program participation.

In 2016 AARP sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting enforcement of the ADA and GINA rules which became effective January 1, 2017. The EEOC’s arguments in opposition to the injunction were:

  • The 30% incentive level is in harmony with the ACA incentive level.
  • The 30% incentive level is a reasonable interpretation of “voluntary” based on current insurance rates.
  • The EEOC relied on comments submitted by the American Heart Association endorsing the 30% incentive level.

The Court determined that the EEOC provided inadequate explanation for determining that a 30% penalty or incentive is an appropriate measure of voluntariness. The Court remanded the rules to the EEOC but without vacating them to avoid disrupting current wellness programs. The Court ordered the EEOC to report back to the Court by September 21, 2017.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss how this decision or the EEOC’s wellness program rules affect you or your business, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., Partner in the Firm’s Labor Law Practice Group  at 973-535-7129 or pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, Firm Counsel Gina M. Schneider, Esq. at 973-535-7134 or gmschneider@nullgenovaburns.com, or Firm Associate Ryann M. Aaron, Esq. at 973-387-7812 or raaron@nullgenovaburns.com.

Two Federal Courts Dismiss ADA Website Accessibility Claims

In the last two months, at least two federal district courts have dismissed website accessibility lawsuits filed against private companies under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), proving that this issue continues to be the Achilles Heel of the Department of Justice’s (“DOJ”) Regulatory Arena.

For context, imagine a blind person who is unable to make online mortgage payments because his bank’s website did not provide him the means.  The DOJ is tasked with enforcing the ADA, a federal statute that provides for equal access to places of public accommodation, including private businesses, for such persons with disabilities.  However, the text of the ADA is silent about public accommodations’ websites, and a recent executive order aimed at decreasing federal regulations has all but eliminated any chance that the DOJ will issue regulations on that topic.  The absence of such regulations has emboldened disability advocacy groups across the nation to flood the courts with lawsuits against companies alleging a failure to provide equal access to audio, audiovisual, or other content made available online.

Not so fast, said the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  On March 20, 2017, in the case of Robles v. Domino’s Pizza LLC, No. 16-06599, the federal court dismissed ADA web accessibility litigation brought against the enormous food retailer, Domino’s.  The court relied on the “primary jurisdiction doctrine,” which allows courts to dismiss complaints pending the resolution of an issue that is “within the special competence of an administrative agency.”  Noting that Congress has vested exclusive authority with the DOJ to promulgate regulations defining what web accessibility standards to impose on private companies, the court concluded that it was inappropriate to render judgment against Domino’s in the absence of such regulations.

There are various other legal issues that arise in ADA web accessibility cases, including the concept of standing, which means having a concrete injury that can be rectified by a court order, and whether a website is a place of public accommodation.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, in the case of Gomez v. Bang & Olfusen America, Inc., No. 16-23801, shed light on both issues.  The Gomez court dismissed an ADA web accessibility claim brought by a plaintiff who contended that the company’s website could hypothetically impede a blind person from enjoying all the benefits of the company’s retail stores on the basis that the plaintiff did not have a particularized injury (i.e., standing).  As the court concluded, “[h]is generalized grievances are wholly unconnected to any harm he actually suffered at the place of public accommodation (i.e. the concrete, physical store) and are therefore insufficient to survive a motion to dismiss.”  The court also recognized that websites are not included in the ADA’s express list of public accommodations: “If Congress – recognizing that the internet is an integral part of modern society – wishes to amend the ADA to define a website as a place of public accommodation, it may do so.  But the Court, having no legislative power, cannot create law where none exist.”

Although these cases may suggest a shield to ADA web accessibility litigation, there are just as many courts across the country taking completely opposite views.  For example, only one year ago, a Massachusetts federal court rejected the “primary jurisdiction doctrine” (relied upon in Robles) as a basis to dismiss ADA web accessibility claims made against Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  See Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf, et al., v. Harvard Univ., et al., No. 15-30023; Nat’l Ass’n of the Deaf, et al. v. Massachusetts Inst. of Tech., No. 15-30024.  Given the national split over these issues and the unlikelihood that the DOJ will issue clarifying regulations, businesses should be cautious.

The first step a business should take to minimize the risk of expensive litigation and exhausting DOJ investigations is to designate an ADA coordinator/compliance group to audit its website.  Companies should simultaneously work with counsel so that reports and findings from these audits are generated under privilege.  In addition, companies should adopt strong website accessibility polices and staff training materials.  Moreover, one of the most effective ways to stave off litigation is to provide a customer service, like a hotline, devoted to assisting customers who encounter difficulties in accessing a company’s web content.

Those with questions about these emerging issues or looking for a preliminary assessment of their legal exposure under the ADA should contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Brigette N. Eagan, Esq., Counsel with the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at beagan@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.

 

EEOC Releases 2016 Enforcement Data: Charges Increase, Downward Trend in Litigation & Monetary Recovery, LGBT Charges Highlighted

Each year, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) releases data detailing the charges of workplace discrimination it receives, the number of enforcement suits filed and resolved, and any areas of targeted investigations and compliance initiatives from the prior year.  On January 18, 2017, the EEOC released its Fiscal Year 2016 Enforcement and Litigation Data summarizing its findings.

Rising Number of Discrimination Charges – According to the EEOC, in 2016 it received 91,503 charges of discrimination, making 2016 the second consecutive year that the agency has seen an increase in the number of charges.  2016 also marks the third consecutive year in which retaliation was the most frequently filed charge.  Below is a chart summarizing the EEOC’s breakdown of the categories of charges filed in 2016 along with a comparison to those charges filed in New Jersey and New York:

  National New Jersey New York
Retaliation:  

42,018 (45.9%)

 

731 (1.7% of total Retaliation charges in US)  

1,604 (3.8% of total Retaliation charges in US)

 

Race:  

32,309 (35.3%)

 

624 (1.9% of total Race charges in US)  

1,084 (3.4% of total Race charges in US)

 

Disability:  

28,073 (30,7%)

 

583 (2.1% of total Disability charges in US)  

1,061 (3.8% of total Disability charges in US)

 

Sex:  

26,934 (29.4%)

 

500 (1.9% of total Sex charges in US)  

1,202 (29% of total Sex charges in US)

 

Age:  

20,857 (22.8%)

 

437 (2.1% of total Age charges in US)  

865 (4.1% of total Age charges in US)

 

National

Origin:

9,840 (10.8%)

 

254 (2.6% of total National Origin charges in US)  

601 (6.1% of total National Origin charges in US)

 

Religion:  

3,825 (4.2%)

 

104 (2.7% of total Religion charges in US)  

180 (4.7% of total Religion charges in US)

 

Color:  

3,102 (3.4%)

 

42 (1.4% of total Color charges in US)  

208 (6.7% of total Color charges in US)

 

Equal Pay:  

1,075 (1.2%)

 

Info not available Info not available
Genetic

Information:

 

238 (.3%) Info not available Info not available

Steady Increase in Charges Filed by LGBT Individuals – For the first time, the EEOC included details in its year end summary about sex discrimination charges filed specifically by members of the LGBT community.  In fiscal year 2016, it settled 1,650 of such charges, recovering $4.4 million.  This accounts for roughly 40% of the 4,000 sex discrimination charges filed by LGBT individuals since fiscal year 2013, which indicates a notable, steady rise in the number of charges filed by members of the LGBT community.  Also trending are the issues involving transgendered employees’ restroom rights.  In July 2015, the EEOC ruled that denying an employee equal access to a common restroom corresponding to the employee’s gender identity constitutes sex discrimination violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, as does conditioning an employee’s such right on proof that the employee underwent a medical procedure, and/or restricting a transgendered employee to a single-user restroom.

Overall Decrease in Monetary Awards – The EEOC recovered a total of over $482 million in fiscal year 2016, down from the $525 million in 2015, broken down as follows:

  • $347.9 million for private-sector, state, and local government employees through mediation, conciliation, and settlements;
  • $52.2 million through litigations; and
  • $82 million for federal employees.

Downward Trend in Litigation – Over 76% of cases that were referred to mediation in 2016 were resolved successfully, though conciliation had a lower success rate of only 44%.  Litigation by the EEOC is experiencing a downward trend, with only 165 active cases on the EEOC’s docket at the end of 2016, as opposed to the 218 that existed at the end of 2015.  In addition, the EEOC filed only 86 lawsuits alleging discrimination in 2016, down from its 142 filed in 2015 and 133 in 2014.

New Online Charge Status System – The EEOC launched digital services allowing employers and charging parties to receive and file documents electronically, check the status of charges online, and communicate electronically with the EEOC.  These services are intended to streamline the charge process and reduce the number of paper submissions and phone inquiries, easing administrative burdens on the EEOC.  These changes may make it easier not only for the agency to handle more charges and resolve them more quickly, but for complainants to file them.

New ADA Regulations on Employer-Sponsored Wellness Plans – The EEOC issued regulations and interpretive guidance advising that employers may provide limited financial and other incentives in exchange for an employee answering disability-related questions or undergoing medical exams as part of a wellness program.

Employers should review the EEOC’s 2016 charge and enforcement data in order to remain vigilant when responding to complaints of harassment and/or discrimination in the workplace.  The EEOC’s statistics also reinforces the need for employers to train managers, supervisors, and employees on those policies.

For more information on the EEOC’s year-end summary, the EEOC’s strategy for future enforcement of federal employment discrimination statutes, or ways to ensure that your company is in compliance with the EEOC’s mandates, please contact John C. Petrella, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Employment Litigation Practice Group, at jpetrella@nullgenovaburns.com, or Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Chair of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com, or 973-533-0777.

Refusing to Attend a Fitness-For-Duty Exam May Not Be Grounds For Termination under the ADA

On January 25, 2016, the New Jersey Appellate Division clarified the requirements set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the related guidance issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) as to when employers may require a medical examination or make inquiries of an employee as to whether such employee is an individual with a disability. In the case of In Re Paul Williams, the appellant-employee began working as a truck driver for the Department of Public Works for the Township of Lakewood in November 2003. In March 2013, the Township received an anonymous letter, purportedly written by another Public Works employee, expressing concern regarding Mr. Williams’s mental state and fear for his and his co-workers’ safety. More than eight months later, the Township scheduled psychological examinations and warned Mr. Williams that he would be subject to discipline should he fail to attend. Mr. Williams refused to attend and maintained that the examinations were not job-related and were thus illegal under the ADA. Under the ADA, examinations are lawful if they are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  The Township thereafter issued a Preliminary Notice of Disciplinary Action seeking his termination on the grounds of incompetency, inefficacy or failure to perform duties and other related charges. After the departmental hearing, the matter was appealed to the Office of Administrative Law.

The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) found that there was not adequate evidence of the Township’s investigation into the anonymous letter to determine its veracity and thus agreed with Mr. Williams that the demand to attend the examinations was not related to work performance or any allegation of disruptive behavior. Moreover, the ALJ found that while Mr. Williams had failed to attend the exam, the request lacked a reasonable basis and thus, he could not be disciplined. The Township appealed the decision to the Civil Service Commission which reversed the ALJ’s determination.

On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the guidance set forth by EEOC which defines “job-related and consistent with business necessity” as instances where an employer reasonably believe (through direct observation or reliable information from credible sources) that an employee’s medical condition is impacting his or her work or that, because of the medical condition, the employee serves as a direct threat. As the EEOC points out, “[t]hen and only then, may the employer lawfully require the employee to undergo a psychological fitness-for-duty examination.” The EEOC’s guidance also provides that employers may not require an employee to take a medical exam when the information received is based in whole or in part on information learned from third party unless it is reliable and would suggest that the employee’s ability to perform job duties or that a direct threat exists as a result of the medical condition.

The Appellate Division affirmed the EEOC’s guidance and sided with Mr. Williams, noting that the Township waited over eight months to require psychological examinations based largely on “innuendo and rumor” contained in the anonymous letter. Thus, the Court found that the Township failed to meet its burden under the ADA of demonstrating the examinations were “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and that Mr. Williams was a direct threat to himself, others or property. The Appellate Division ordered Williams reinstated and back pay calculated for his time suspended.

Employer Takeaways:

  • Requiring employees to attend a fitness-for-duty examination must be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.” Employers must have objective evidence to support any required medical examination.
  • An employer must conduct a timely individualized assessment to determine the reliability of third party information regarding an employee’s medical condition: the relationship of the source to the employee, the seriousness of the medical conditional the possibility motivation of the third party providing the information, how the third party learned of the information, as well as other evidence that the employer has that bears on the reliability of the information.

For more information regarding compliance with accommodating disabilities, requiring independent medical examinations in compliance with the ADA, and EEOC’s guidance regarding same, please contact Dina M. Mastellone, Esq., Director of the firm’s Human Resources Practice Group, at dmastellone@nullgenovaburns.com or 973-533-0777.