Jury Awards $125 Million to Former Walmart Employee in Disability-Bias Suit

Damages likely will be reduced

By Lisa Nagele-Piazza July 20, 2021
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Walmart store front

A jury recently awarded more than $125 million in a disability-discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of a former Walmart employee with Down syndrome. Walmart noted, however, that the compensatory and punitive damages will be reduced to $300,000, which is the maximum award allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleged that the retail giant failed to accommodate a longtime employee's request to return to her original shifts after schedule changes caused her disability-related difficulty.

A spokesperson for Walmart said the retailer is sensitive to the situation and believes the company could have resolved the issue with the employee, but that the EEOC's demands were "unreasonable."

"We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year," said Randy Hargrove, Walmart's senior director of national media relations. "We often adjust associate schedules to meet our customers' expectations, and while [the employee's] schedule was adjusted, it remained within the times she indicated she was available."

The ADA covers businesses with at least 15 employees and requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to worker with disabilities unless doing so would create an undue hardship for the employer.

"Employers, no matter how large, have an obligation under the law to evaluate the individual circumstances of employees with disabilities when considering requests for reasonable accommodations," said Julianne Bowman, the EEOC's district director in Chicago.

We've rounded up articles and resources from SHRM Online and other trusted media outlets on the news.

EEOC Alleged Failure to Accommodate

The plaintiff worked as a sales associate for more than 15 years at a Walmart in Manitowoc, Wis. Her responsibilities included folding towels, cleaning aisles, handling returns and greeting customers, according to her attorney, and she received pay raises and positive reviews during her tenure. Walmart made shift changes based on a computerized scheduling system that anticipates when stores will be busy and when more workers will be needed. The employee requested that Walmart allow her to work her original schedule as a reasonable accommodation because the changes to her routine caused her significant difficulty. The EEOC alleged that Walmart failed to provide a reasonable accommodation, and instead fired her and later refused to rehire her because of her disability in violation of the ADA. Walmart claimed the employee was fired for excessive absenteeism and tardiness.

(The New York Times)

Cap on Damages

After a four-day trial, the jury awarded the former employee $150,000 in compensatory damages and $125 million in punitive damages, which are meant to punish the company. "The substantial jury verdict in this case sends a strong message to employers that disability discrimination is unacceptable in our nation's workplaces," said EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows. 

Walmart said the award will be reduced because compensatory and punitive damages under the ADA are capped at $300,000 for employers with more than 500 employees. EEOC spokeswoman Kimberly Dulic told Reuters in an e-mail that the $300,000 cap does not apply to back pay, front pay, litigation costs or interest. She noted that those amounts will be determined by the judge.

(Reuters) and (U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission)

What If a Job Applicant Discloses a Disability?

The ADA protects job applicants in addition to employees. Employers generally are prohibited from asking questions about disabilities before making conditional job offers to applicants, but what should an employer do if a job applicant voluntarily discloses a disability at the interview stage? 

Telling applicants upfront what to expect from the interview process can help surface accommodation requests early on so they can be addressed in advance. Regardless of when an applicant's voluntary disclosure of disability occurs, employers should focus on the applicant's ability to perform the essential functions of the job and should document any accommodation discussions.

(SHRM Online)

[Want to learn more about the ADA? Join us at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2021, taking place Sept. 9-12 in Las Vegas and virtually.]

Reasonable Accommodation and the Interactive Process

In the interactive process—a discussion about an applicant's or employee's disability—the applicant or employee, health care provider and employer each share information about the nature of the disability and the limitations that may affect his or her ability to perform the essential job duties. This discussion is the foundation of compliance with the ADA.

(SHRM Online)

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