Georgia Power, EEOC Settle Disabilities Lawsuit for $1.6M

Daily Labor Report® is the objective resource the nation’s foremost labor and employment professionals read and rely on, providing reliable, analytical coverage of top labor and employment...

By Kevin McGowan

Nov. 15 — Georgia Power Co. has agreed to pay almost $1.6 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the utility violated federal law by refusing to hire applicants and firing employees with disabilities that it believed posed safety threats without making individual assessments ( EEOC v. Ga. Power Co. , N.D. Ga., No. 13-3225, proposed consent decree 11/15/16 ).

A federal district court in Georgia still must review and approve the settlement, which would provide monetary relief to 24 alleged discrimination victims. It also would require Georgia Power to modify some of its employment policies and to train its managers regarding the Americans with Disabilities Act’s requirements.

A proposed consent decree filed Nov. 15 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia would settle the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s class claims under the ADA. Judge Amy Totenberg’s approval would allow the three-year decree to begin taking effect.

Safety Is Priority, Company Says

“The safety of our employees is our top priority and we are committed to providing a safe and inclusive work environment for all of our 7,000-plus employees across the state,” a Georgia Power spokesman said in a Nov. 15 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA.

The company's “strict policies” regarding seizures and drugs and alcohol “help ensure that employees with safety-sensitive job requirements can safely do their jobs every day,” the spokesman said.

Georgia Power denies it violated the ADA. But it settled to “avoid the additional expense, delay and uncertainty that would result” from continued litigation, according to the proposed decree.

The company agreed to modify its seizure and alcohol and drug policies, and to formalize its process of ensuring workers can safely perform their jobs, because of its over-arching commitment to safety, the company spokesman said.

“We believe that these modifications will further enhance the safe workplace we provide for our employees and contractors,” the spokesman said.

Burden on Employer to Prove Threat

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’t be eliminated by reasonable accommodation. The employer has the burden of proving such a threat exists.

Georgia Power barred some employees from returning to work after medical leaves because it believed they couldn’t safely do their jobs. Among them was an equipment operator who previously had two seizures at work but was cleared by his doctors to return.

The company also rescinded a job offer as a paid intern to an applicant who was taking lawfully prescribed medication to treat a traumatic brain injury.

The EEOC sued based on discrimination charges from Georgia Power job applicants or employees whom the company either refused to hire or wouldn’t reinstate from medical leaves because of perceived safety risks. It sought relief for a class of workers affected by the alleged discriminatory policy.

The agency said that instead of crediting physicians’ opinions that the individuals with disabilities were able to work, Georgia Power automatically disqualified them without any individualized assessments.

Policies Would Change

Under the proposed decree, Georgia Power would change its seizure and drug and alcohol policies.

The company wouldn’t discharge an employee, deny a return from medical leave or reject a job applicant based on an alleged “direct threat” without an individualized assessment of the worker’s ability safely to perform the job.

Georgia Power would consider if any reasonable accommodation could reduce or eliminate the perceived safety threat without undue hardship to the company, the proposed decree provides.

The agency is “pleased” it could resolve the lawsuit and “provide meaningful relief” to individuals with disabilities, EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez said in a statement Nov. 15.

The changes to Georgia Power’s policies “will open the doors to opportunities” for workers with disabilities or perceived disabilities, Lopez said.

EEOC attorneys in Atlanta represented the commission. Troutman Sanders LLP represented Georgia Power.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kevin McGowan in Washington at kmcgowan@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

For More Information

Copyright © 2016 The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.