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Walmart to Pay $300K of $125M Jury Award

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A recent Wisconsin jury award of $125 million against Walmart Inc. for failing to accommodate a longtime employee with Down syndrome will be lowered to $300,000, the maximum amount allowed under federal law.

“The substantial jury verdict in this case sends a strong message to employers that disability discrimination is unacceptable in our nation’s workplaces,” Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Charlotte A. Burrows said in a July 16 news release.

But the jury award won’t stand. In 1991, Congress set caps on compensatory and punitive damages for violations of federal disability discrimnation laws. The maximum amount awarded depended on the size of the employer, and for companies with more than 500 employees, the maximum in damages is $300,000. Walmart has 1.6 million workers in the United States.

Juries, however, aren’t told of the limits before they deliberate.

The EEOC sued Walmart in 2017 on behalf of Marlo Spaeth, who has Down syndrome. She began working for Walmart in Wisconsin in 1999 as a sales associate, where her duties included folding towels and helping customers find items.

Because of her disability, Spaeth needed a consistent schedule and one that allowed her to take the bus, according to the EEOC’s court filings. She generally worked a noon to 4 p.m. schedule, about 14 hours a week.

But in November 2014, Walmart’s computer-generated scheduling system changed her schedule, the EEOC said in filings. The automated scheduling system was designed to make sure there were enough employees to meet customer demand. Spaeth’s new work schedule was the 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. shift.

“Spaeth had difficulty adjusting to the new schedule because of her Down syndrome,” the filing said. She asked to return to the previous schedule so she could make it home for dinner and not miss the bus. She told Walmart that if she did not eat on time, she would get sick.

“Walmart took no steps to start the process of finding a reasonable accommodation that would allow Spaeth to perform her job successfully,” the EEOC said in court filings.

Spaeth would leave work early, and Walmart would count her as absent. She was eventually fired in July 2015 for excessive absenteeism.

The law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with a disability, unless doing so would cause significant difficulty or expense for the employer, according to the EEOC’s website.

“A reasonable accommodation is any change in the work environment (or in the way things are usually done) to help a person with a disability apply for a job, perform the duties of a job, or enjoy the benefits and privileges of employment,” the EEOC said. “Reasonable accommodation might include, for example, making the workplace accessible for wheelchair users or providing a reader or interpreter for someone who is blind or hearing impaired.”

Walmart argued in court papers that Spaeth was unable to perform a critically essential function of her job, which was regular attendance, “and was therefore not a qualified individual with a disability for purposes of the” Americans With Disabilities Act.

The jury disagreed. The jury found that Walmart failed to provide Spaeth with a reasonable accommodation and that providing Spaeth an accommodation would not have posed an undue hardship on Walmart. The jury also found that Walmart violated the ADA by failing to reinstate Spaeth because of her disability.

On July 15, the jury awarded $150,000 in compensatory damages for emotional pain and mental anguish plus $125 million in punitive damages.

“A jury can be very sympathetic, especially given the long history of positive … performance reviews of the person,” said Marieka Klawitter, a professor of public policy and governance at the University of Washington. “And the worker didn’t change; it was Walmart that changed the schedule.”

Walmart said it is reviewing its options.

“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year,” Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesman, told Arkansas Business. “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.”

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