Walmart Liable for Denying Full-Time Job Coach to Employee with a Disability

By Jeffrey Rhodes August 30, 2022
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Takeaway: The reasonable accommodation requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require an employer to provide a disabled employee with a full-time aide or job coach.

​The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict in favor of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of an employee with a disability who was denied the continued use of a job coach.

Beginning in 1998, the Walmart store in Beloit, Wis., employed a cart attendant who was deaf and legally blind and who experienced anxiety. He communicated via sign language, gestures and facial expressions. As a cart attendant, he retrieved shopping carts and flatbed carts from the parking lot, organized the carts and flatbeds near the store, assisted customers with transporting items, and loaded merchandise into customer vehicles.

The cart attendant worked at the Walmart for 16 years, during which time he had three job coaches. His first job coach was his foster mother, legal guardian and caretaker. Then, he had two job coaches who would alternate to provide coverage for him whenever he worked at Walmart.

In 2015, the Beloit Walmart hired a new store manager. Later that year, the shift manager told the store manager that the cart attendant and his job coach were fighting in the parking lot. The shift manager did not witness the alleged incident, and no one called the police or reviewed what had happened.

The store manager decided to observe the cart attendant at work and, after doing so, contacted his foster mother. He told her that the job coach was doing 90 percent to 95 percent of the cart attendant's job. He then suspended the cart attendant and told his foster mom to fill out paperwork as if he was a newly hired employee, including having a physician complete an accommodation medical questionnaire.

After the suspension, the parties had little communication for almost a year. In March 2016, Walmart sent the cart attendant a letter asking him to continue in the interactive process. But by then, the cart attendant and his foster mother had filed an administrative charge with the EEOC. The EEOC in turn decided to sue Walmart, alleging that Walmart violated the ADA by refusing to allow the cart attendant to continue to use a job coach and by ending his employment.

Walmart moved for summary judgment against the EEOC, asserting that the cart attendant could not perform the essential functions of his job and that full-time job coaches can never be reasonable accommodations. The district court denied the motion, and the case went to trial. The jury delivered a verdict in the EEOC's favor, awarding the cart attendant $200,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages, which the district court reduced to $100,000 to satisfy the statutory damages cap.

After the jury verdict, the EEOC sought equitable relief in the form of $41,224 in back pay, $58,125 in front pay, $4,496 in prejudgment interest, $19,097 for tax consequences and a three-year injunction against Walmart. The district court granted the monetary equitable relief but denied the EEOC's requested injunctive relief.

Walmart appealed the case to the 7th Circuit, and the EEOC cross-appealed the denial of the injunction. On appeal, Walmart argued that a full-time job coach is never a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, that punitive damages should not have been awarded because the theory of liability was novel, and that the district court should have bifurcated the liability and damages portions of the trial.

The 7th Circuit rejected Walmart's argument that a full-time job coach cannot be required as a reasonable accommodation. While the court noted that the ADA does not require employers to pay twice for the same work, it reasoned that the lawsuit did not require Walmart to pay for the job coaches provided. It found that the EEOC presented sufficient evidence to the jury that the cart attendant performed the essential functions of his job and the job coaches only provided limited assistance.

The 7th Circuit further found that it was not novel for Walmart to be required to provide a job coach, as a prior case decision required a school district to provide a permanent aide for a teacher with a disability. Finally, the court found that Walmart had waived any objection to having liability and damages decided at the same time at trial based on its prior agreement to this procedure.

The court similarly rejected the EEOC's request for broad injunctive relief that would have applied to other Walmart employees. It ruled that the district court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting this requested relief. The 7th Circuit thus upheld the jury verdict.

EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 7th Cir., Nos. 20-3473 & 21-1124 (June 30, 2022).

Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.

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