Employment LawScene Alert:
EEOC Wellness Lawsuit against Wisconsin Employer Ends in $100,000 Settlement

A Wisconsin employer’s settlement last month with the EEOC ended the final round of litigation initiated against it by the EEOC over its workplace wellness plan.

In 2009, Manitowoc-based Orion Energy Systems (Orion) implemented a wellness program that included a health assessment. The health assessment consisted of a personal health questionnaire, a biometric screening, and a blood draw.  An Orion employee refused to participate and, as a result, was required to pay her full health premium costs of more than $400 per month. (Meanwhile, for employees who participated in the health assessment, the employer paid 100% of the premium cost). The employee openly questioned the purpose of the health assessment, the confidentiality of its results, and the CEO’s response to her questions. Approximately three weeks after declining to participate in the health assessment, her employment was terminated.  She then filed a complaint with the EEOC, which in turn sued Orion in August 2014, alleging that the company’s wellness program violated the ADA as “involuntary” and that the company had retaliated against her in violation of the ADA.

The ADA generally prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from requiring medical examinations or making disability-related inquiries of an employee, unless the examination or inquiry is job-related and consistent with business necessity. The law includes an exception for “voluntary” wellness programs, but the EEOC had not finalized its definition of a “voluntary” wellness program until May 2016, nearly seven years after the events at issue in this case.

In a mixed September 2016 decision, the court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled against the EEOC by finding that the wellness plan was voluntary. The court determined that the health assessment incentive (the premium cost) was permitted within the framework of a “voluntary” plan, and therefore was not prohibited under the general ADA medical examination and inquiry rules.  While shifting even 100% of the premium cost to the employee was a strong incentive, it was still not an involuntary “compulsion,” the court reasoned, because employees could still choose between completing the health assessment or paying the full premium.

While the court’s ruling essentially approved the design of the wellness plan, it declined to dismiss the employee’s ADA retaliation and interference claims. In other words, it was only the termination (allegedly in response to the employee’s refusal to participate in the wellness plan) that the court found troubling.

To resolve these remaining issues, Orion agreed to pay the former employee $100,000. Orion also agreed:

  • Not to maintain any wellness program in the future with disability-related inquiries or medical examinations that do not meet the criteria for “voluntary” wellness plans as defined under the May 2016 final EEOC regulations;
  • Not to engage in any form of retaliation, including interference or threats, against any employee for raising objections or concerns as to whether the wellness program complies with the ADA;
  • To tell its employees that any concerns about its wellness program should be sent to its human resources department;
  • To train its management and employees on the law against retaliation and interference under the ADA; and
  • To conduct an additional training meeting with its chief executive officer, its chief operating officer, its chief financial officer, its HR director, and all employees responsible for negotiating or obtaining health coverage or selecting a wellness program. This training is to include an explanation of the settlement terms and the ADA’s requirements regarding wellness programs.

While Orion, in the consent decree, “continues to deny the EEOC allegations,” the settlement serves as a reminder to employers not to base any employment decisions on participation or non-participation in a workplace benefit program. Wellness programs must comply not only with multiple provisions of the ADA, but also with HIPAA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), the Affordable Care Act, and other laws. As these rules, and relevant case law, continue to evolve, it is important that employers maintaining, implementing, or considering updating a wellness plan proceed with an awareness of the potential costs of noncompliance.