A jury last week found that Walmart violated federal law for failing to accommodate the disabilities of a longtime employee and awarded $5.2 million in damages.
After a 3½-day trial, the jury sided with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and awarded the employee $200,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $5 million in punitive damages.
However, Walmart maintains that it attempted to accommodate the employee. The giant retailer also contends that the penalty exceeds a federal cap on such damages, and it will seek to have it reduced.
“We believe the compensatory damages were excessive and the court erred in allowing the jury to assess punitive damages at all. Under federal law the combined amount of damages is capped at $300,000,” Randy Hargrove, Walmart’s national media relations director, told Insurance Journal.
The EEOC told Insurance Journal that Walmart is right that the law caps damages at $300,000.
The lawsuit brought by the EEOC claimed that an employee, who has a developmental disability and is deaf and visually impaired, worked as a cart pusher in the Beloit, Wis., Walmart for 16 years before a new manager started at the store. “In his first month, the new store manager suspended the employee and forced him to resubmit medical paperwork in order to keep his reasonable accommodations,” the EEOC said in its statement. “Prior to the suspension, the employee performed his job with the accommodation of assistance from a job coach provided by public funding. The employee’s conditions had not changed.”
The EEOC charged that when the employee and his legal guardian submitted new medical paperwork requesting the continued accommodation of assistance from a job coach, the store “cut off communication and effectively terminated him.”
“Employers have a legal obligation under federal law to work with employees who need accommodations for disabilities,” said Gregory Gochanour, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Chicago District. “When companies shirk that obligation, the EEOC will fight to uphold the rights of disability discrimination victims. In this case the jury sent a strong message to Walmart and to other employers that if they fail to live up to their obligations under the law, they will be penalized.”
Walmart has a different view of what happened.
“When a new manager started at our store, safety concerns for Mr. Reina led our store manager to ask for an official accommodations review process. After we applied the official accommodations review process, it was determined Mr. Reina could not perform the essential parts of his job with or without reasonable accommodations. As a result, he is no longer working at the store,” the company said in a statement to Insurance Journal.
Hargrove said Walmart is “deeply sorry this matter reached this point” and is considering its options.
“We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year. We attempted to accommodate Mr. Reina’s severe limitations for several years but ultimately that was no longer feasible. We believe we could have resolved this issue with Mr. Reina, however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable. We are disappointed in the outcome, do not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence and are weighing our post-trial options,” the company said.
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