Late last week, a Wisconsin jury found that Walmart violated the Americans With Disabilities Act when it failed to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of an employee who had been working for its Beloit, Wisconsin store for 16 years. The jury hammered the company with $200,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Fortunately for Walmart and unfortunately for the employee, the punitive damage award is $4.7 million over what is permitted by the ADA.
The employee is developmentally disabled, deaf, and visually impaired. He worked for 16 years as a cart pusher at a Beloit, Wisconsin, Walmart store before a new manager took over. Less than a month in, the new manager suspended the employee and demanded medical paperwork to support reasonable accommodations (assistance from a job coach paid for and provided by public funding) that had been in place allowing this employee to remain on the job.
The EECO took up the case itself and sued Walmart on behalf of the employee. According to the EEOC, the employee and his legal guardian submitted new medical paperwork but the Company stopped communicating with them following the suspension, effectively terminating the employee’s employment. Walmart defended its actions alleging that it did offer the employee appropriate accommodations: “We attempted to accommodate [his] severe limitations for several years but ultimately that was no longer feasible. We believe we could have resolved this issue with [him], however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable.”
This verdict has been widely reported. What is overlooked in most news reports is the fact that the Americans With Disabilities Act, the federal statute under which the lawsuit was brought, caps punitive damages for large employers (more than 500 employees) at $300,000.
Although Walmart will enjoy the benefits of a remittitur to an award of $500,000, perhaps less, a half-million dollars (plus attorneys fees and costs) for refusing an accommodation that effectively cost the company nothing, is a big price to pay.
- Never pull reasonable accommodations for a disabled employee that have been effective in the past, absent a substantial change in the accommodation request or the employee’s condition.
- Don’t guess at what is required to prove the defense of undue hardship; confer with experienced and knowledgeable counsel or HR personnel.
- The EEOC takes great interest in disability discrimination cases. In the last six weeks alone, the agency has commenced 19 lawsuits and settled 14 suits or claims against U.S. employers for alleged violations of the ADA.