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Walmart Hit With $125 Million Jury Award in ADA Suit by EEOC (2)

July 16, 2021, 2:33 PMUpdated: July 16, 2021, 8:01 PM

Walmart Stores East LP must pay more than $125 million to a sales associate with Down syndrome who the EEOC alleged had her schedule changed, exacerbating attendance problems for which she was later fired, a federal jury in Green Bay, Wis., ruled in a verdict entered Friday.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced the verdict in its suit for Marlo Spaeth, a longtime employee who it said was fired in July 2015 because of her disability.

The jury found that Walmart was aware that Spaeth needed a job accommodation for her disability and that it wouldn’t have imposed an undue hardship on the company to accommodate her, according to the special verdict form.

“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year,” Randy Hargrove of Walmart told Bloomberg Law Friday. “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. We’re sensitive to this situation and believe we could have resolved this issue with Ms. Spaeth, however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable.”

“The verdict will be reduced to $300,000, which is the maximum amount allowed under federal law,” he said.

The company is reviewing its legal options, Hargrove said.

The jury found the company both failed to accommodate Spaeth’s disability and terminated her because she is disabled, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

After a new policy caused her schedule to be changed, Spaeth asked Walmart to adjust her start and end times by 60 to 90 minutes and that she be returned to her prior schedule, the agency said. The company failed to act on her request and instead fired her, the EEOC said.

The trial evidence showed Spaeth had consistently received positive performance reviews during her approximately 16 years as a Walmart employee, the EEOC said.

The jury also found her later request to be rehired was denied because of her disability or because Walmart was unwilling to accommodate her disability, the agency said.

The bulk of the jury award—$125 million—was for punitive damages, according to the EEOC. Spaeth will also receive $150,000 in compensatory damages, the EEOC said.

“The substantial jury verdict in this case sends a strong message to employers that disability discrimination is unacceptable in our nation’s workplaces,” EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said. “All of those who come forward to ensure the right to a workplace free of discrimination do a service to our nation. Thank you to them and to my colleagues at the EEOC whose excellent work investigating and litigating the case made this important verdict possible.”

“The jury here recognized, and apparently was quite offended, that Ms. Spaeth lost her job because of needless—and unlawful—inflexibility on the part of Walmart,” Gregory Gochanour said. He is the regional attorney of the EEOC’s Chicago District Office.

“Ms. Spaeth’s request was a simple one and denying it profoundly altered her life,” Chicago District Director Julianne Bowman said.

Judge William C. Griesbach of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin presided over the four-day trial. He ruled in January 2020 that Spaeth’s positive performance evaluations before the schedule change could convince a jury she was able to meet the attendance requirement and could have continued to do so if Walmart had granted the accommodation requests it received from her and her legal guardian to resume working her previous schedule.

Entry of judgment in the case will be delayed until the issues of back pay and equitable relief have been decided, according to the court docket.

EEOC attorneys in Milwaukee and Chicago represent the commission. MWH Law Group and Conway Olejniczak & Jerry represent Walmart.

The case is EEOC v. Wal-Mart Stores East LP, E.D. Wis., No. 1:17-cv-00070, jury verdict entered 7/16/21.

(Updated with details from the verdict form in paragraph 3 and the court docket in paragraph 16.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Dorrian in Washington at pdorrian@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Carmen Castro-Pagán at ccastro-pagan@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

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