Why it matters

A requirement that an employee be "fully released" from limitations before returning to work from Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave cost one employer more than $100,000 after being investigated by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When Bernadine Adams went on FMLA leave due to her fibromyalgia, Brookdale Senior Living Center required that she be "fully released" by her doctor from any restrictions or accommodations before she returned to work. Brookdale eventually terminated Adams due to a breakdown in the accommodation process. The EEOC filed suit on behalf of the employee, alleging that the "fully released" requirement violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). To settle the charges, Brookdale agreed to pay Adams $112,500 as back pay and compensatory damages; the company also promised to provide additional training to its employees and managers on the ADA and report any new complaints of disability discrimination or retaliation to the agency. The agency said the case provided an important lesson for employers, who should "know that imposing a requirement that employees be without any restrictions whatsoever in order to return to work is a recipe for disaster," as EEOC Regional Attorney Mary Jo O'Neill said in a statement.

Detailed discussion

Bernadine Adams began working for Brookdale Senior Living Communities in 2009 as a full-time licensed practical nurse at a facility in Denver, Colorado. She was promoted the following year to Health and Wellness Director.

But in July 2011, Adams was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and presented her employer with a letter from her doctor. Her condition substantially limited her in several major life activities, including walking, sitting, sleeping, the ability to care for herself, thinking, and concentrating.

Adams took a few days off work due to her fibromyalgia and then went on Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) leave until January 2012. At that point, she returned to work without restrictions but with intermittent FMLA leave orders, if needed. Just two days later, her fibromyalgia flared up and her doctor recommended that she work from home on a half-time basis.

A series of meetings followed between Adams, human resources, and executives at Brookdale in an attempt to work out an accommodation. Adams sought an ergonomic chair, a workplace lighting adjustment, and a flexible work schedule. At the end of January, the employer placed Adams on full FMLA leave until she was "fully released" by her doctor to work without restrictions and accommodations. Adams responded by filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The parties continued to communicate, but in late March, Adams notified Brookdale that she was still not able to return to work without restrictions or accommodations. She was terminated on March 28, 2012, by letter stating that she "failed to engage in the interactive process within reasonable terms."

In September 2014, the EEOC filed suit on Adams' behalf against Brookdale with two claims for relief: discrimination by failing to accommodate and retaliation in violation of the ADA. "By not allowing Ms. Adams to return to work until she could return full-time with no restrictions or need for accommodations," the employer intentionally ran afoul of the statute, the agency said.

Brookdale reached a deal with the EEOC, agreeing to pay Adams $112,500. The employer also consented to provide training to all employees and district managers on the requirements of the ADA, including the need to provide reasonable accommodations to qualified individuals, and will report to the EEOC if any further complaints of disability discrimination or retaliation are made.

To read the complaint in EEOC v. Brookdale Senior Living Communities, Inc., click here.

To read the consent decree, click here.