According to the Consent Decree filed on November 15, 2016, Georgia Power Company (“Georgia Power”) has agreed to pay $1.6 million and to revise its seizure and drug and alcohol policies in order to settle the lawsuit brought by the EEOC which claimed that the utility company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) when it fired, or refused to hire, employees with actual or perceived disabilities on the basis that it believed the individuals posed safety threats. However, according to the EEOC, these actions were taken without actually assessing the individual’s ability to perform the required tasks.

In 2013, the EEOC brought suit on behalf of 24 alleged discrimination victims (EEOC v. Georgia Power Company, Civil Action No. 1:13-cv-03225-AT) in the District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division.  According to the EEOC, Georgia Power either refused to hire disabled individuals or barred some employees from returning to work after medical leave because it believed that they couldn’t safely do their jobs.  The EEOC claims that Georgia Power ignored the opinions of treating physicians that the individuals were able to perform their job functions, and instead automatically disqualified them without any individualized assessment.

Under the ADA, an employer can deny jobs to individuals with disabilities if it believes the workers pose a “direct threat,” which the ADA defines as “a significant risk” to the health or safety of others that can be eliminated by reasonable accommodation. The employer has the burden of proving that such a threat exists.

According to the EEOC, each of the individual plaintiffs were qualified individuals who were able to perform the job functions with or without reasonable accommodations. For example, plaintiff Harper was able to perform the essential functions of a paid intern, but Georgia Power rescinded the offer of employment after it learned that she was taking medication for a traumatic brain injury. Furthermore, in the case of plaintiffs Simmons, Allen, and Butler, each individual was cleared by a physician to return to work, but instead, their employment was terminated by Georgia Power. See Complaint, pg. 4. The EEOC asserted that each of these individuals were discriminated against because of their disability and that Georgia Power failed to provide any evidence that the individuals posed a “direct threat” to the safety of others.

Georgia Power denies that it violated the ADA, but has entered into the settlement to avoid additional litigation costs.

The take away from this settlement is to ensure that you, as employers, have conducted an individualized assessment for each individual prior to disqualifying them from being able to perform specific job functions.