A senior living operator has agreed to pay a former employee $66,000 and is making significant changes to its human resources programs as part of a settlement of a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

According to the complaint, Meeka Herderson was a new chef at Enlivant’s North Brook Place senior living community in McKinney, TX, in September 2016 when she informed her employer she would need surgery for a medical condition the following April. The complaint stated she “reiterated her request for an accommodation on multiple occasions from September 2016 through March 2017.”

Henderson’s direct supervisor approved her request, and she began her medical leave on March 29, 2017. One day before her surgery, however, Enlivant’s human resources department contacted her and told Henderson if she did not return to work without restrictions by April 30, 2017, she would be fired. 

“Henderson was further told that she did not qualify for any federal or state protections and that for all medical leaves of absence, employees were required to provide a return-to-work release, with no restrictions, from their physician prior to the start of their first shift,” the original complaint read. 

Henderson underwent the surgery — a hysterectomy — and provided Enlivant with a physician’s letter stating that she would be unable to return to work until May 20, 2017, according to the EEOC. Enlivant denied this requested accommodation and terminated Henderson’s employment on April 30, 2017. 

The EEOC sued on Henderson’s behalf in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas after attempts to reach a settlement through its conciliation process failed. 

The original complaint stated the company violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by discriminating against Henderson by failing or refusing to “provide a reasonable accommodation of a medical leave of absence for a reasonable period of time, and by requiring her to produce a full medical release with no restrictions as a condition of being allowed to return to work.”

In addition to the monetary relief to be paid to Henderson under the two-year consent decree, the assisted living provider agreed to training of human resources directors and managers and will disseminate policies that specifically address the ADA accommodation issues.

Enlivant sold the business operation at North Brook after the suit was filed and no longer employs the individuals identified as responsible for the discriminatory decisions. 

“Chef Henderson was looking forward to returning to her job in the kitchen at the senior living center,” Joel Clark, senior trial attorney for the EEOC, said in a statement. “But for the employer’s rigid policy, she could have continued her role in service to the residents of the facility.”

The EEOC originally had announced the lawsuit against Enlivant in October.

“The commitments that Enlivant makes under the terms of this agreement affirm the importance of giving employees full and fair consideration when accommodation issues arise,” said Robert Canino, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Dallas District Office. “This kind of self-evaluation and transformative initiatives in the healthcare industry can serve as an example to employers in other industries as well.”

A representative of Enlivant told McKnight’s Senior Living that the company respects and supports the EEOC and related agencies but does not comment on litigation or employment matters.

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