Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Sears to pay $6.2 million to settle EEOC lawsuit for illegally firing disabled worker

From the Chicago Sun-Times:

Sears Holdings Corp. has agreed to pay a record $6.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that accused the retailer of illegally firing a disabled worker.

The consent decree, approved today, represents the largest settlement ever for the agency in a single lawsuit alleging violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the EEOC said.

The lawsuit, filed in 2004, arose from a charge of discrimination filed with the EEOC by former Sears service technician John Bava, who repaired appliances. Bava was injured on the job at the former Sears, Roebuck and Co. and took workers compensation leave, the agency said. He remained disabled due to the injuries, but repeatedly attempted to return to work. But Sears “could never see its way clear to provide Bava with a reasonable accommodation which would have put him back to work and, instead, fired him when his leave expired,” said EEOC Chicago District Director John Rowe in a released statement.

According to the agency, documents released as a part of pre-trial discovery revealed that hundreds of other employees who had taken workers’ compensation leave were also terminated by Sears without the company seriously considering reasonable accommodations to return them to work while they were on leave or seriously considering whether a brief extension of their leave would make their return possible.

“Inflexible leave policies which ignore reasonable accommodations making it possible to get employees back on the job cannot survive under federal law,” John Hendrickson, regional attorney of the EEOC Chicago District Office, said in a statement. “Today’s consent decree is a bright line marker of that reality.”

Sears agreed to the settlement to avoid the time and expense of what would have been a lengthy legal process, said company spokeswoman Kimberly Freely. “Sears anticipated this matter to continue for up to an additional five years and both parties agreed that it was in their mutual interests to resolve the matter through the $6.2 million settlement.”

Fifty-eight-year-old Bava, who hurt his back, knees and wrist when he fell down a flight of stairs at a customer’s home, welcomed the agreement.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” he said. “It’s great. My whole thing of doing this was for other people out there that this has been done to for them to come out and stand up.”

Bava said he found out he was terminated after his wife’s discount card was rejected. He received no prior notice that he had been fired, he said, adding, he hopes the settlement sends the message to employers that they should “treat your employees fairly and try to accommodate them if they’re injured.”

Freely said despite the settlement, Sears “continues to believe that it reasonably accommodates its associates on leave due to work-related illnesses or injuries under the ADA.”

Under the three-year consent decree, approved by federal District Judge Wayne Andersen, Sears is required to abide by the ADA. Sears also is required to amend its workers compensation leave policy, provide written reports to the EEOC detailing its workers compensation practices and train employees regarding the ADA.

Sears has created a centralized leave management team to administer the terms of the consent decree and assist managers and associates “with leave-end issues,” the retailer said.