A Wisconsin jury has awarded more than $125m to a longtime Walmart employee with Down Syndrome who brought three claims of disability discrimination against the grocery store giant.
The eight-member jury found that the retailer failed to accommodate Marlo Spaeth’s disability when she requested to have her working schedule changed and then fired her in July 2015 because of her disability.
Bringing the lawsuit against the hypermarket chain, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) presented evidence that a change Walmart made to Spaeth’s longstanding work schedule caused her significant difficulty.
After Spaeth requested her start and end times be adjusted by 60 to 90 minutes, and to be returned to her prior schedule, Walmart failed to act on the request and instead terminated her employment due to excessive absenteeism.
Spaeth had worked for the company for approximately 16 years and had consistently received positive performance evaluations from her managers, according to evidence presented at trial.
The jury also found that Walmart turned down Spaeth’s later request to be rehired because of her disability or because of their need to accommodate her disability.
Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which prohibits discrimination based on an employee’s disability.
The EEOC said it filed its lawsuit in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its voluntary conciliation process.
The jury awarded Spaeth $150,000 in compensatory damages and $125m in punitive damages after deliberating for three hours following the four-day trial.
“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 A Burrows.
“All of those who come forward to ensure the right to a workplace free of discrimination do a service to our nation.”
Gregory Gochanour, regional attorney of the EEOC’s Chicago District Office, said: “The jury here recognised, and apparently was quite offended, that Ms Spaeth lost her job because of needless – and unlawful – inflexibility on the part of Walmart.”
Also commenting on the award, EEOC Chicago District Director Julianne Bowman said: “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. Ms Spaeth’s request was a simple one and denying it profoundly altered her life.”
A spokesperson for Walmart said the company was reviewing its legal options but that the award will be reduced to $300,000, which marks the “maximum amount allowed under federal law for compensatory and punitive damages”.
“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year. We often adjust associate schedules to meet our customers’ expectations and while Ms Spaeth’s schedule was adjusted, it remained within the times she indicated she was available,” said Walmart’s Randy Hargrove.
“We’re sensitive to this situation and believe we could have resolved this issue with Ms Spaeth, however, the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable.”