Beverage Distributor Unlawfully Fired Employees Who Needed Medical Leave, Federal Agency Charged
CHICAGO – Federal District Judge John W. Darrah has signed a consent decree under which Direct Wines, Inc., formerly known as Beverage Solutions, Inc., a Lake Forest, Ill., beverage distribution company, will pay $50,000 to end a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Direct Wines operates home delivery membership clubs such as Beer Across America and International Wine Club.
The EEOC charged in the suit that the company violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) by failing to accommodate Pamela Stokes and a class of disabled employees by terminating their employment because they needed medical leave. The ADA prohibits employment discrimination against people with disabilities and requires that employers provide reasonable accommodations to employees, including leaves of absence, unless it would cause an undue hardship to the employer.
According to EEOC Chicago District Director John Rowe, who supervised the federal agency’s administrative investigation of the matter, Beverage Solutions had a policy that provided that employees could only take leave between February 15 and May 15 or between July 15 and October 15, when Beverage Solutions claimed that business was slower. When Stokes requested six to eight weeks of medical leave beginning on September 20, 2006 so that she could have heart surgery, Rowe said, Beverage Solutions denied her leave request and told her that by taking leave she would be effectively resigning. Stokes underwent surgery and was released to return to work on November 20, 2006. She then contacted Beverage Solutions about coming back, but was refused.
The EEOC filed the lawsuit, captioned EEOC v. Beverage Solutions, Inc., Case No. 09 C 3829, on June 25, 2009, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. The case was assigned to Judge Darrah. The judge signed the consent decree February 26, 2010, and it was received today by the EEOC.
Under the terms of the consent decree entered today, Direct Wines will pay $50,000 to Stokes and one other employee who was terminated for needing medical leave. The decree also requires that Direct Wines adopt and distribute a policy against disability discrimination and revise its leave policies to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities. In addition, the two-year decree enjoins Direct Wines from engaging in further disability discrimination or retaliation, requires that it provide annual training to its employees regarding disability discrimination and mandates that it submit periodic reports to the EEOC regarding any such complaints.
John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago, said, “We’re pleased that Direct Wines agreed to resolve this lawsuit without protracted litigation. Early resolutions like this one have real down-to-earth benefits.”
“In particular,” Hendrickson added, “employers aren’t spending money that could be used to grow business on suiting up lawyers to do battle. Victims of discrimination are more quickly made whole and can move on with careers. Current and future workers are – immediately and for the long term – assured their rights under federal law will be protected and respected. From our perspective at the EEOC, these are all entries on the positive side of the ledger – not only for all the parties, but for the taxpayers as well.”
Ann Henry, EEOC trial attorney, and Supervisory Trial Attorney Diane Smason were responsible for the conduct of the litigation.
Henry said, “This case should remind employers that inflexible leave policies may spell trouble under the ADA. Even if a disabled employee may not be eligible for leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, the ADA still may compel an exception to a leave policy as a reasonable accommodation. So, as with any other reasonable accommodation issue, this is not an area for knee-jerk decision making.”
The EEOC Chicago District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on the agency’s web site at www.eeoc.gov.