A Walmart employee with Down syndrome who was fired for excessive absenteeism was awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages and a whopping $125 million in punitive damages following a four-day jury trial in Green Bay, Wis.
The former employee alleged the chain discriminated against her and failed to accommodate her when it changed her schedule after it implemented a new computer system. The schedule change caused her to have attendance issues that ended in her termination. She sought to be rehired after getting fired, but Walmart failed to do so.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which sued on her behalf, alleged she was denied rehire because of her disability and her need for reasonable accommodations.
The jury deliberated just three hours before rendering its verdict.
According to the EEOC, the jury determined that Walmart failed to accommodate the employee and then fired her because of her disability. Her job as a sales associate was to fold towels, clean aisles, process returns, and greet customers.
The EEOC alleged Walmart changed her longstanding work schedule that, for a person with a disability such as Down syndrome, made complying very difficult. The employee requested her start and end times be adjusted by only 60 to 90 minutes. She wanted to be returned to her prior schedule.
Instead of accommodating the employee, the EEOC alleged Walmart fired her. The employee had 16 years’ worth of consistent positive performance evaluations.
“The substantial jury verdict in this case sends a strong message to employers that disability discrimination is unacceptable in our nation’s workplaces,” said Charlotte A. Burrows, chair of the EEOC, of the verdict. “All of those who come forward to ensure the right to a workplace free of discrimination do a service to our nation.”
The EEOC’s regional attorney said, “The jury here recognized, and apparently was quite offended, that Ms. Spaeth [the employee] lost her job because of needless — and unlawful — inflexibility on the part of Walmart.”
Federal law caps compensatory and punitive damages in these types of cases to $300,000 for employers of this size. Therefore, the verdict likely will be reduced to the cap.
Under the recent state expansion to the Virginia Human Rights Act, employers with six or more employees can be liable for unlimited compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages, in addition to attorney’s fees and other relief. This verdict will likely persuade attorneys to file in Virginia state courts to avoid the caps provided in federal law.
Employers need to address their practices around providing reasonable accommodations and provide notice to new and current employees of their right to reasonable accommodations for disabilities. They also need to engage in the interactive process and offer flexible solutions while not removing any essential job functions or performance measurements.