Retailer Condoned Disability Harassment at West Virginia Store, Punished Employee for Association With Co-Worker, Federal Agency Charges
ELKINS, W.V. - National retailer Big Lots Stores, Inc. violated federal law by condoning disability harassment and punishing an employee without disabilities for her association with a co-worker with disabilities, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) charged in a lawsuit it filed today.
In its lawsuit, the EEOC charges that a retail employee with hearing and speech disabilities was subjected to harassment by her co-workers at Big Lots' Elkins, W.V., store. Co-workers often mocked the employee's hearing disability and manner of speech, and frequently used derogatory and highly offensive terms in reference to her and her disabilities. The EEOC asserts that numerous Big Lots officials were aware of the long-standing pattern of disability harassment taking place at their store but failed to take appropriate action to end the harassment and prevent it from recurring. Additionally, the EEOC charges that Big Lots refused to select the employee with disabilities for several vacant jobs that she sought at the store because of her disabilities and in retaliation for her reporting of the harassment to company officials and to the EEOC.
Further, the EEOC's lawsuit also charges that Big Lots subjected a department manager without disabilities at the Elkins store to discrimination and retaliation by changing her work schedule and withdrawing its permission for her to hold outside employment with the U.S. Postal Service, thereby forcing her to quit in order to save her Postal Service career. The EEOC says that Big Lots punished the department manager because of her long-term association with the harassment victim and in retaliation for her opposition to discrimination, such as her efforts to protect her co-worker from harassment by reporting the hostile work environment to Big Lots management officials and human resources. Big Lots officials also subjected both the harassed employee and the department manager to intimidation, threats, coercion, and interference with their exercise and enjoyment of rights protected by federal anti-discrimination law, according to EEOC's lawsuit.
Such alleged conduct violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. Big Lots Stores, Inc. Case No. 2:17-cv-00073-JPB) in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its administrative conciliation process. The agency's lawsuit seeks certain forms of injunctive relief, court-ordered job instatement and reinstatement, as well as payment of monetary remedies to the two employees, including past and future lost wages and benefits, compensatory damages and punitive damages.
"The EEOC will vigorously protect the rights of workers with disabilities to earn a living without being subjected to workplace harassment, discrimination or retaliation," said EEOC Regional Attorney Debra M. Lawrence. "Similarly, the EEOC is committed to vindicating the ADA rights of workers who seek to assist and protect their co-workers with disabilities."
EEOC District Director Spencer H. Lewis, Jr. added, "Employees with disabilities have a right to be free from harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Employers need to heighten their awareness to the application of federal anti-discrimination law to individuals with disabilities, and act accordingly."
The lawsuit was commenced by EEOC's Pittsburgh Area Office, one of four component offices of EEOC's Philadelphia District Office. The Philadelphia District Office is responsible for cases originating in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, and parts of New Jersey and Ohio.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the agency is available at its website, www.eeoc.gov.