Law Review: $125M judgment against Walmart in disability discrimination case — employers take heed
We have written about the Americans with Disabilities Act’s detailed and stringent mandates requiring businesses and buildings open to the public to meet ADA guidelines. There is no “substantial compliance” meeting the requirements. A “two percent grade” on a disabled parking space means just that, not a centimeter steeper.
There is an entire section of the ADA covering private employers with at least 15 employees, state and local governments, employment agencies and labor unions. Just ask Walmart.
WALMART’S NEW WORK SCHEDULE
Marlo Spaeth was a longtime Walmart employee with Down Syndrome. She had worked at Walmart since 1999; however, in 2014, Walmart instituted a computerized scheduling system which changed the hours Spaeth was required to work. She complained to her employer that she needed a ridged daily routine. Walmart took no steps to fix her schedule, which was frustrating to Spaeth since the location where she worked was open 24 hours a day and employed over 300 employees. She insisted something could be done.
Walmart ignored her complaints and fired Spaeth for punctuality concerns and she was ultimately fired in July of 2015. Walmart declined to rehire her even though she was eligible for reinstatement.
Spaeth filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who sued Walmart in a Green Bay, Wisconsin federal court.
THE $125 MILLION VERDICT
The federal jury awarded Spaeth $150,000 in damages and added a staggering $125 million in punitive damages, which will be reduced to $300,000 – the cap on EEOC punitive damages.
ADA DISABLED EMPLOYEE BASICS
An employee may qualify as disabled under the ADA if they have a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity – such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning or operation of a major bodily function. Spaeth’s condition substantially limited a major life activity. Of course, the employee must qualify for the job.
The Act requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for the worker’s disability. An employee must make the case that the employer denied them “a reasonable accommodation.”
Which accommodations are reasonable depends on a number of factors which is a major source of lawsuits and court cases. Courts have held that a reasonable accommodation is one whose costs did not exceed its benefits. This may include facility modifications, schedule adjustments, unique equipment or sometimes may include transferring an employee to a new position for which they are qualified. A reasonable accommodation must keep all of the essential functions of the job intact.
The jury ultimately found Walmart failed to make reasonable accommodations which seemingly could easily have been done.
As noted, the ADA covers private employers with at least 15 employees. Also state and local governments. It would be wise to confer with an attorney or expert familiar with this area of the law when presented with a request for a reasonable accommodation. It goes without saying that what is a reasonable accommodation is not always clear.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOAs, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com
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