Jury Finds That Auto Parts Retailer Refused to Accommodate Sales Manager with Neck and Back Impairments
PEORIA , Ill. – A federal court jury in Peoria has returned a verdict of $600,000 against AutoZone, Inc. for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to a disabled sales manager, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today. An additional claim for $115,000 in back pay will be decided by the presiding judge at a later date.
In the lawsuit brought by the EEOC, AutoZone was charged with requiring a sales manager to perform certain cleaning tasks, including mopping floors, that violated his medical restrictions. The sales manager, who worked at the company’s Macomb, Ill., retail store until 2003, is disabled with permanent back and neck impairments. The EEOC presented evidence that mopping floors was a non-essential function of the sales manager position that could have been reassigned to other employees, and that the employee could perform all of the essential functions of his job. The sales manager testified that that he asked not to be assigned mopping and supported his request with documentation of his impairment. The EEOC’s evidence at trial indicated that in 2003, new store management refused the request and required the employee to mop, leading to further injury and necessitating a medical leave.
The EEOC charged that the company’s actions violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), which requires that employers make reasonable accommodations to the known physical limitations of employees with disabilities. Under the ADA, a reasonable accommodation may include the elimination or modification of a non-essential job duty, or the transfer of a non-essential job duty to another employee.
“Any employer who thinks that the EEOC is reluctant to take cases to trial or that ordinary juries in courts across the country will shy away from returning big verdicts in ADA cases ought to readjust his thinking in a hurry,” said John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago. “Juries well understand that providing reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities is critical to keeping them on the job and moving the economy forward. They get it, and employers should too.”
The EEOC filed suit in 2007 after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Peoria Division, was designated Civil Action No. 07 C 1154 and was tried before U.S. Magistrate Judge John A. Gorman. The jury returned its $600,000 verdict late on Friday, June 3.
The government’s litigation effort was supervised by EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour. At trial, the EEOC was represented by Trial Attorneys Justin Mulaire and Aaron DeCamp.
Mulaire said, “The jury sent an important message today. Employers should take requests for accommodations seriously, and make every reasonable effort to enable qualified individuals with disabilities to do their jobs and earn a living.”
EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said, “This is the latest of a string of trial victories for the EEOC this year. Although we are able to resolve most cases through conciliation or settlement, the agency is also prepared to take cases to trial when other efforts to further the public interest do not succeed.”
Lopez noted that other recent trials won by the agency are EEOC v. Boh Brothers Construction, EEOC v. Mid-American Specialties, and EEOC v. Paul's Big M, sex harassment cases in which juries in New Orleans, Memphis, and Syracuse returned verdicts ranging from $451,000 to $1.5 million.
DeCamp and Mulaire noted that under the Civil Rights Act of 1991, damages are capped at $300,000 for a claim under the ADA and that the jury’s award may be reduced during subsequent proceedings before the judge.
The EEOC Chicago District Office is responsible for processing charges of discrimination, administrative enforcement, and the conduct of agency litigation in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and North and South Dakota, with Area Offices in Milwaukee and Minneapolis.
EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the Commission is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.