NEW YORK (Reuters) - Sears Holdings Corp agreed to pay a record $6.2 million to settle a lawsuit by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the department store retailer illegally fired disabled workers.
U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen in Chicago approved the settlement of the nearly five-year-old case on Tuesday, finding the terms "adequate, fair, reasonable, equitable, and just," court records show.
The settlement was the largest in a single lawsuit alleging violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act in the EEOC's history, the agency said.
The EEOC had accused the operator of Sears and Kmart stores of maintaining an inflexible leave policy, and firing more than 100 employees who wanted to return to work rather than provide them with reasonable accommodations for their disabilities.
According to the EEOC, the three-year consent decree requires Sears to amend its workers' compensation leave policy, provide reports about its practices, and improve training.
"Nearly 20 years after the enactment of the ADA, the rights of individuals with disabilities are still in jeopardy," EEOC Acting Chairman Stuart Ishimaru said in a statement. "This record settlement sends the strongest possible message that the EEOC will use its enforcement authority boldly to protect those rights and advance equal employment opportunities for individuals with disabilities."
Sears said it settled because the case could have continued another five years, at "considerable expense" to the Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based company.
"Sears continues to believe that it reasonably accommodates its associates on leave due to work-related illnesses or injuries" under the ADA, spokeswoman Kimberly Freely said in a statement. "We have always proceeded and will continue to proceed in good faith when considering and making reasonable accommodations for our associates."
The EEOC filed its original complaint on November 10, 2004 on behalf of former Sears service technician John Bava.
It said Bava was injured on the job, took workers' compensation leave, tried repeatedly to return to work while he was still disabled, and was fired when his leave expired.
The case is EEOC v. Sears Roebuck & Co, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago), No. 04-7282.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Tim Dobbyn