Carry: The reasonable accommodation requirement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may require an employer to provide an employee with a disability with a full-time aide or coach.
The 7th United States Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict in favor of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on behalf of a disabled employee who had been denied continued use of a professional coach.
As of 1998, the Walmart store in Beloit, Wis., employed a deaf, legally blind, and anxiety-stricken cart attendant. He communicated through sign language, gestures and facial expressions. As a cart attendant, he retrieved carts and tray carts from the parking lot, organized carts and trays near the store, helped customers transport items, and loaded merchandise into customer vehicles.
The cart attendant worked at Walmart for 16 years, during which time he had three coaches. His first working coach was his adoptive mother, legal guardian and caretaker. Then he had two work coaches who alternated providing cover 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 trainer were fighting in the parking lot. The shift supervisor did not witness the alleged incident and no one called the police or investigated what had happened.
The store manager decided to observe the cart at work and, after doing so, contacted his adoptive mother. He told her that the job coach did 90-95% of the trolley attendant’s work. He then suspended the trolley attendant and told his adoptive mother to fill out paperwork as if he were a newly hired employee, including having a doctor fill out a medical accommodation questionnaire.
After the suspension, the parties had little communication for nearly a year. In March 2016, Walmart sent the cart attendant a letter asking him to continue the interactive process. But, by then, the cart attendant and his adoptive mother had filed an administrative complaint 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 using a job coach and terminating his employment.
Walmart filed for summary judgment against the EEOC, saying 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 returned a verdict in favor of the EEOC, 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 up to the statutory damages limit.
After the jury’s verdict, the EEOC sought equitable relief in the form of $41,224 in back wages, $58,125 in initial salary, $4,496 in prejudgment interest, $19,097 for tax consequences and a three-year injunction against Walmart. The district court granted the equitable monetary relief, but denied the injunction sought by the EEOC.
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 work coach is never a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, that punitive damages should not have been awarded because the theory of liability was new and that the district court should have separated liability and damages. of the trial.
The 7th Circuit rejected Walmart’s argument that a full-time work coach cannot be required as a reasonable accommodation. Although the court noted that the ADA did not require employers to pay twice for the same work, it held that the lawsuit did not require Walmart to pay for the job coaches provided. He found that the EEOC presented the jury with sufficient evidence that the trolley attendant performed the essential functions of his job and that the job coaches provided only limited assistance.
The 7th Circuit further found that it was nothing new for Walmart to be required to provide a job coach, as an earlier case decision required a school district to provide permanent assistance to a disabled teacher. Finally, the court held that Walmart had waived any objection to liability and damages being decided at the same time at trial based on its prior agreement to this proceeding.
The court also denied the EEOC’s request for a broad injunction that would have been applied to other Walmart employees. She ruled that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the relief sought. The 7th Circuit therefore upheld the jury’s verdict.
EEOC v Wal-Mart Stores Inc.7th Cir., n° 20-3473 & 21-1124 (June 30, 2022).
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney at McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Virginia.