Caltrans considers appeal in $3M Nevada County case
May 20, 2017
Caltrans officials say they're considering an appeal of a Nevada County case that ended this month with a $3 million verdict on harassment and discrimination claims.
John R. Barrie, still employed by Caltrans, won the verdict after the 12-day trial and two days of deliberations in Nevada County Superior Court. He was awarded $3 million for past emotional distress and $44,413 for past economic loss, his attorney said in a statement.
Barrie, 60, argued that his employer failed to accommodate his allergy to certain cleaning chemicals and perfume, and then retaliated against him by denying him overtime, relocating him and deliberately spraying perfume in his work space.
"This is a major victory for disabled persons everywhere," Barrie said in an emailed statement. "This marks a resounding triumph for those with 'invisible' disabilities, such as heart disease, epilepsy, diabetes and chemical sensitivities. I applaud the jury's unequivocal affirmation that chemical sensitivities are a bona fide physical disability."
Liza Whitmore, public information officer with Caltrans, said her office has reviewed the verdict and is weighing its options for a possible appeal.
"For what it's worth, I don't think there are any applicable issues from the trial that just happened," said Erik Roper, an attorney for Barrie, about an appeal.
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According to an email from Roper, Barrie's issues began years after he was hired in 2005 as an office technician with Caltrans.
Barrie in his first week told supervisors about his chemical and scented product allergies, and received an informal accommodation until 2010, when a new office manager started. Months later Barrie began finding chemicals in his office.
Complaints by Barrie led to threats of relocation. He then requested, and received, a formal reasonable accommodation in 2011, the email states.
Despite that accommodation, Barrie noticed occasions when his work area smelled strongly of perfume. He reported the smell, as well as the regional administrative officer using profanity and making homophobic statements.
In early 2012, Barrie's workspace was relocated to another building recently painted and carpeted. An allergic reaction to fumes led to a forced medical leave, and Barrie to again complain. A surprise inspection of his office revealed chemicals and scents prohibited by his reasonable accommodation.
Caltrans managers ultimately moved Barrie to a building's lobby, where he was given receptionist duties and denied a "winter timekeeping" stint that earned him about $8,000 a year in overtime, the attorney's email states.
"They retaliated against him by taking away his winter timekeeping duties," Roper said. "All accounts at trial were that he was the best ever at doing this winter timekeeping duty."
In February 2013, Barrie found a lumbar pillow in his workspace smelling of perfume. Trial testimony revealed that it was intentionally sprayed several times and that an administrator ordered staff to cover up those acts, Roper's email states. Barrie filed suit in February 2013, court records state.