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Texas Coffee Company settles EEOC disability bias lawsuit

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North Richland Hills, Texas-based 151 Coffee will pay $70,000 and furnish other relief to settle a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency announced on May 9.

According to the EEOC’s lawsuit, 151 Coffee closed all its locations in April 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The company sent an email to all employees at the end of April announcing reopening of stores in May and asking employees to confirm whether they would like to return. Two employees with disabilities responded that they were ready to return to work but requested reasonable accommodations because their disabilities placed them at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. 151 Coffee denied both employees’ requests for reasonable accommodation, and instead told the two employees they could not return to work until a vaccine for COVID-19 had been developed.

This alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects employees from discrimination based on their disabilities. The EEOC filed suit, Civil Action No. 4:21-CV-01081, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Ft. Worth Division, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process.

“Addressing the workplace civil rights implications of the COVID-19 pandemic is a key priority of the agency,” said EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows.  “This resolution demonstrates the agency’s commitment to ensure that employers understand their legal obligations and workers understand their rights in the pandemic context.”

In addition to providing monetary relief, the two-year consent decree settling the suit prohibits future discrimination and requires 151 Coffee to disseminate a workplace policy on disability discrimination that details the rights of applicants and employees under the ADA. It also describes the procedure employees should follow if they require reasonable accommodation of a disability, and the steps managers must take if they receive a request for reasonable accommodation. During the term of the consent decree, 151 Coffee will also provide annual training to its owners, human resources employees, district managers, and other employees in its corporate office. The training will cover the requirements and prohibitions of the ADA, as well as 151 Coffee’s procedure for requesting reasonable accommodation of a disability and reporting discrimination complaints.

“The need for an interactive process when an employee requests reasonable accommodation of a disability applies regardless of the circumstances,” said Meaghan Kuelbs, trial attorney in the EEOC’s Dallas District Office. “An employer must consider the specific nature of an employee’s disability and gather information from the employee and, if necessary, his or her physician, to determine whether a reasonable accommodation will allow that employee to safely perform the essential functions of their position.”

“The EEOC is pleased with this outcome that represents a commitment by the employer to emphasizing the protections of the ADA, engaging in education of its workforce and providing a written policy to establish expectations, all of which move this workplace in the right direction,” said Robert Canino, regional attorney for the Dallas District Office.

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