In October 2019, Walmart was ordered to pay $5.2 million by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. An employee, who had vision and hearing impairments of which Walmart management was aware, had worked as a cart pusher for 16 years and had been previously accommodated in the form of a job coach.
A new manager was hired and within a month the employee was suspended and required to submit medical documentation to justify the accommodation that had been previously provided. Although the employee submitted the documentation, he was later terminated. The employee filed a claim with the EEOC and after trial, a jury awarded him $200,000 in compensatory damages and $5 million dollars in punitive damages.
What Could the Employer Have Done Differently?
Employers can avoid expensive verdicts like these if they can demonstrate that they have engaged in a thorough interactive process with the employee. “Employers have a legal obligation under federal law to work with employees who need accommodations for disabilities,” stated the EEOC’s regional attorney when discussing the verdict.
Over the last several years, the EEOC has focused closely on whether employers are engaging in an effective interactive process after receiving a request for a reasonable accommodation. Accommodation requests that place an undue burden on a company can be denied; however, the employer must demonstrate that a thorough interactive process was conducted to successfully defend against a claim of disability discrimination. That includes 1) communicating with the employee, 2) possessing a complete understanding of the employee’s disability and how it impacts their ability to perform the essential functions of the job, and 3) demonstrating that a good faith effort was made to review every available option, if no accommodation is available.
If you’re looking for assistance managing disability claims or to ensure compliance across your organization, ReedGroup has solutions for you. Check out our offerings here.