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Major retailer settles ADA class action over private medical info

Dillard's, Inc., the department store chain that operates nearly 300 stores in 29 states, has just settled a class action lawsuit accusing it of forcing workers to reveal their private medical information if they needed to take sick time. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the class action four years ago claiming that the policy was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the EEOC, thousands of former and current Dillard's employers were forced to submit a doctor's note when seeking sick leave. More than that, the doctor's note could not simply confirm that they were sick but had to describe the exact nature of their medical treatment.

If the employees were uncomfortable sharing their private health information with the company's HR department they were fired. This was true even if their doctors specifically told them not to reveal the information.

The EEOC claims that a blanket policy that forces all workers to reveal their private medical information or be fired is a violation of the ADA. While agreeing to the settlement, Dillard's continues to argue that requiring the specific details about their employees' medical treatment was necessary to confirm that their illness-related absences were legitimate.

It's certainly an unusual policy. Most employers avoid seeking specifics about employees' medical conditions in order to avoid lawsuits. Should an employee be fired after learning he or she had cancer, for example, most employers would like to be able to show that they did not know about the cancer, which makes it much less likely the firing was discriminatory.

The policy is also open to abuses, as the EEOC found in this case. "We found that managers weren't trained and they were really harassing people," said an EEOC attorney involved in the case.

Finally, when employees were missing more time than the company's policies allowed, Dillard's made no effort to find out whether the workers needed accommodation for a disability or qualified for FMLA leave, the EEOC says. Instead, the company merely terminated them.

"In order to avoid further protracted litigation with the EEOC over policies that are no longer in effect, Dillard's determined that the most efficient resolution was to settle with the EEOC," the company said.

By the terms of the settlement, Dillard's will pay $2 million to about 75 known victims, establish a compensation fund for other class members, and change its discriminatory policies.

Anna Park, an EEOC attorney, said some employees were forced to reveal conditions like cancer, mental illness or gynecological information just to get an excused absence.

Source: HuffPost Business, "Dillard's Settles Charges It Made Sick Workers Illegally Reveal Conditions," Sam Hananel, Dec. 18, 2012

Our firm protects employees' rights when they face retaliation or wrongful termination due to disability status or FMLA claims. For more information, please see our website.

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