$125 million awarded in EEOC disability discrimination case

A federal jury in Wisconsin recently awarded more than $125 million in punitive damages
to a former Walmart employee with Down syndrome. In its case against the retail giant,
the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged Walmart failed to
accommodate the employee’s request to return to her original work schedule after
changes caused her disability-related difficulty.

Failure to Accommodate

Marlo Spaeth worked as a Walmart sales associate for more than 15 years. Throughout
her tenure, she received pay raises and positive performance reviews. In 2014, Walmart made storewide schedule changes, including Spaeth’s. As an individual with Down
syndrome, Spaeth thrives on routine. When Spaeth asked Walmart to return to her old
schedule, the retailer refused. Shortly after, Walmart terminated Spaeth for absenteeism
and later refused to rehire her. The EEOC alleged that Walmart violated the Americans
with Disabilities Act (ADA) for failure to provide Spaeth a reasonable accommodation, and
firing, and later refusing to rehire, her on account of her disability.

Reasonable Accommodation & the Interactive Process

The ADA requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodation to qualified
individuals with disabilities who are employees or applicants for employment, unless to do
so would cause undue hardship. Generally, an employer’s duty to engage in the
interactive process is triggered whenever it learns that an employee needs an
accommodation. Courts give employees wide latitude in how they make this known. The
employee is not required to provide the request in writing, identify a specific
accommodation, or use specific terms such as “disability,” “ADA,” or “reasonable
accommodation.” In the interactive process (a discussion about an applicant’s or
employee’s disability) the employer should gather information about the nature of the
disability and the limitations that may affect the employee’s ability to perform the essential
job duties.

Although the jury award will be reduced (compensatory and punitive damages under the
ADA are capped at $300,000 for employers with more than 500 employees), the verdict
in EEOC v. Walmart Stores East LP is a reminder for employers that the ADA requires that
they make exceptions to policies if the exception is necessary to reasonably
accommodate a person with a disability.

If you need assistance with your EEO policies and procedures or would like to schedule
manager training, contact Nicole Gardner today.