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.


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 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.


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 or

Support Local Journalism


Support Local Journalism

Readers around Lake Tahoe, Truckee, and beyond make the Sierra Sun's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.

Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.

User Legend: iconModerator iconTrusted User