Legal Developments

Court Draws a Line Between ‘Voluntary’ and ‘Coercive’

A federal court ruled the EEOC failed to justify its reasoning for wellness rules that coerce workers into disclosing health and genetic information.
By: | August 30, 2017 • 3 min read

Dealing a blow to wellness regulations issued last year by the EEOC, the U.S. District Court, District of Columbia ruled that the regulations, which permit the use of significant financial incentives for employees to participate in workplace wellness programs, are arbitrary and capricious. The case is AARP v. EEOC, No. 16-cv-2113 (D.D.C. 08/22/17).

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The issue in dispute is whether the rules violate Americans with Disabilities Act and Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act provisions protecting employees from involuntary disclosure of their health and genetic information. The rules allow wellness programs to collect protected information from participants. AARP argues that some of the financial incentives offered to employees make participation coercive rather than voluntary.

U.S. District Judge John Bates determined that the EEOC failed to adequately justify its conclusion that programs offering incentives of up to 30 percent of the cost of an employee’s individual health insurance coverage for participation are “voluntary.”

AARP, an advocacy group for individuals aged 50 and older, sued the EEOC last October, claiming that the 30 percent incentive permitted by the rules is too high to give employees a meaningful choice regarding whether to participate in wellness programs. and that the EEOC did not adequately explain how it determined the 30 percent incentive level.

In ruling on AARP’s motion for summary judgment, the court explained that, pursuant to Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), it would defer to the EEOC’s chosen interpretation of the term “voluntary” if the agency “offered a reasoned explanation for its decision.” The court was concerned principally with “ensuring that [the EEOC] has ‘examined relevant data and articulated a satisfactory explanation for its action’” and that its “’decision was based on a consideration of the relevant factors.’”

The court also found “little evidence” that the EEOC “actually analyzed any factors that might be relevant to the economic “coerciveness” of the incentive level.

The EEOC put forth three reasons for why it determined that the term “voluntary” permits incentives up to 30 percent. First, the agency contended that it wanted to “harmonize” its regulations with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The court noted, however, that the commission did not explain “why it makes sense to adopt wholesale the 30 percent level in HIPAA, which was adopted in a different statute based on different considerations and for different reasons,” particularly when the term “voluntary” is not included in the relevant provisions of HIPAA.

Moreover, the court concluded, the agency’s interpretation is, in fact, inconsistent with HIPAA. The court found, therefore, that the EEOC’s argument that it adopted the 30 percent level to “harmonize” with HIPAA did not support its interpretation of the term “voluntary.”

Second, the EEOC stated that the 30 percent level was based on “current insurance rates.” The court rejected this argument, finding it “utterly lacking in substance.” A review of the administrative record, the court stated, revealed no study or analysis of “current insurance rates” or how they relate to the voluntary disclosure of information in wellness programs.

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Finally, the EEOC asserted that it relied on comment letters in making its determination. The court found the only comment letter identified by the EEOC to be “unpersuasive,” particularly given that the majority of comment letters opposed the chosen incentive level. Acknowledging that the agency is entitled to rely on some comments and not others, the court explained that the agency must nonetheless “explain why it chose to rely on certain comments rather than others.”

The court also found “little evidence” that the EEOC “actually analyzed any factors that might be relevant to the economic “coerciveness” of the incentive level.

Noting the disruption vacating the rules would cause to employers and employees alike, the court instead ordered the EEOC to review and reconsider the regulations while they remain in effect. The EEOC is to file a status report proposing a schedule of review by Sept. 21.

Christina Nevins, Esq., is the disability legal editor at LRP Publications. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

2017 Risk All Stars

Immeasurable Value

The 2017 Risk All Stars strengthened their organizations by taking ownership of improved risk management processes and not quitting until they were in place.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 3 min read

Being the only person to hold a particular opinion or point of view within an organization cannot be easy. Do the following sound like familiar stories? Can you picture yourself or one of your risk management colleagues as the hero or heroine? Or better yet, as a Risk & Insurance® Risk All Star?

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One risk manager took a job with a company that was being spun off, and the risk management program, which was built for a much larger company, was not a good fit for the spun-off company.
Rather than sink into inertia, this risk manager took the bull by the horns and began an aggressive company intranet campaign to instill better safety and other risk management practices throughout the organization.

The risk manager, 2017 Risk All Star Michelle Bennett of Cable One, also changed some long-standing brokerage relationships that weren’t a good fit for the risk management and insurance program. In her first year on the job she produced premium savings and in her second year is in the process of introducing ERM company-wide.

Or perhaps this one rings a bell. The news is trickling out that a company is poised to dramatically expand, increasing the workforce three- or four-fold. Having this knowledge with certainty would be a great benefit to a risk manager, who could begin girding safety, workers’ comp and related programs accordingly. But things sometimes don’t work that way, do they? Sometimes the risk manager is one of the last people to know.

The Risk All Star Award recognizes at its core, creativity, perseverance and passion. The 13 winners of this year’s award all displayed those traits in abundance.

In the case of 2017 Risk All Star winner Steve Richards of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company, the news of an expansion spurred him to action. He completely overhauled the company’s workers’ compensation program and streamlined its claim management system. The results, even with a much higher headcount, were reduced legal costs, better return-to-work experiences for injured workers and a host of other improvements and savings.

The Risk All Star Award recognizes at its core, creativity, perseverance and passion. The 13 winners of this year’s award all displayed those traits in abundance. Sometimes it took years for a particular risk solution, as promoted by a risk manager, to find acceptance.

In other cases a risk manager got so excited about a solution, they never even considered getting turned down. They just kept pushing until they carried the day.

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Butler University’s Zach Finn became obsessive about what he felt was a lackluster effort on the part of the insurance industry to bring in new talent. The former risk manager for the J.M. Smucker Co. settled on the creation of a student-run captive to give his risk management students the experience they would need to get hired right out of college.

The result was a better risk management program for the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and immediate traction in the job market for Finn’s students.

A few of our Risk All Stars told us that the results they are achieving were decades in the making. Only by year-in, year-out dedication to gaining transparency about her co-op’s risks and learning more and more about her various insurance carriers, did Growmark Inc.’s Faith Cring create a stalwart risk management and insurance program that is the envy of the agricultural sector. Now she’s been with some of her insurance carriers more than 20 years — some more than 30 years.

Having the right idea and not having a home for it can be a lonely, frustrating experience. Having the creativity, the passion and perhaps, most importantly, the perseverance to see it through and get great results makes you a Risk All Star. &

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Risk All Stars stand out from their peers by overcoming challenges through exceptional problem solving, creativity, perseverance and passion.

See the complete list of 2017 Risk All Stars.

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]