A seven-person jury in Syracuse, New York, returned a $1.675 million verdict last week in a disability discrimination lawsuit filed on behalf of a job candidate who is deaf.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought the complaint against McLane Northeast, a firm that delivers consumer products to convenience stores, mass merchants, and drug stores and has a facility in Baldwinsville, New York.
The jury found that McLane Northeast violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by refusing to interview a deaf candidate in whom the company had interest after the company learned that the candidate was deaf and refusing to hire the candidate for the two entry-level warehouse jobs that she applied for. The jobs entailed selecting designated products, loading them into a cart or onto a pallet, and transporting them to dock areas to fulfill customer orders.
EEOC said the candidate met all the requirements for the jobs including being able to read, speak and understand English. She was able to communicate verbally in-person by speaking and reading the lips of the individual with whom she was speaking.
According to the complaint, after receiving her resume, a McLane Northeast human resource person called her to discuss her application. On the call, the candidate used a relay service whereby she typed what she wanted to say to an operator, who verbally relayed her words to McLane and then typed the McLane’s words back to her. McLane Northeast became aware that the applicant had a hearing impairment.
Also according to the complaint, the human resources employee told her that she would receive a return call or email but the company never returned the call or emailed her. The candidate reapplied.
The company continued to seek applications from others but rejected the disabled candidate’s applications. The company interviewed and ultimately hired other, non-hearing-impaired applicants for the positions, the complaint says.
EEOC argued that McLane Northeast refused to interview her because of her disability, denying her opportunities provided to non-hearing-impaired applicants, then ultimately failed to hire her because of her disability. EEOC maintained that these were unlawful and intentional, employment practices in violation of the ADA.
In its defense, McLane Northeast denied wrongdoing. The company maintained that the candidate was not qualified for the positions she applied to; did not inform the company of her purported disability; did not request any type of accommodation for any purported disability; and was not otherwise entitled to any type of accommodation for any purported disability. The company further maintained that she was not entitled to an award of back pay or front pay.
After a three and one-half-day trial, the jury issued its verdict after two hours of deliberation. The jury awarded the deaf applicant $25,000 in back pay, $150,000 in emotional distress damages, and $1.5 million in punitive damages.
“I’m heartened that the jury sent a loud and clear message with this verdict that discriminating against deaf job applicants is a violation of the ADA, and that employers who know they may be violating the law but discriminate anyway will be punished harshly,” said Karla Gilbride, EEOC’s general counsel said.
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