MADISON, Wis. - A jury Thursday awarded a Beloit Walmart employee millions of dollars in a disability discrimination case, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The EEOC said in news release Friday that the jury determined that Walmart violated federal law when it refused to accommodate a longtime employee with disabilities, and the jury awarded $5.2 million in damages.
According to the EEOC lawsuit, an employee who has a developmental disability and is deaf and visually impaired, worked as a cart pusher at the Beloit 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. 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 said.
According to the release, the employee and his legal guardian submitted new medical paperwork requesting the continued accommodation of assistance from a job coach, but the store cut off communication and effectively terminated him, the EEOC charged.
After a 3 1/2-day trial, the jury found in favor of the EEOC and awarded the employee $200,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $5 million in punitive damages.
"Employers have a legal obligation under federal law to work with employees who need accommodations for disabilities," regional attorney for the EEOC's Chicago District Gregory Gochanour said. "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."
The EEOC said its Chicago District is responsible for investigating charges of employment discrimination, administrative enforcement and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota, with area offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
Walmart Senior Director of National Media Relations Randy Hargrove says the Bentonville, Arkansas retailer does not believe the verdict is supported by evidence and is weighing its options.
"We are deeply sorry this matter reached this point," Hargrove said. "We don't tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year. We attempted to accommodate [his] severe limitations for several years but ultimately that was no longer feasible. We believe we could have resolved this issue with [him], however the EEOC's demands were unreasonable.
Hargrove also said the company believes "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."
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