Seventh Circuit Reverses Summary Judgment on Accommodation Claim

When a person with a disability requests an accommodation, the employer must engage in an "interactive process" to arrive at a workable accommodation.  The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the employer and employee to discuss possible alternatives.  Every disability and every person is different.  So, the possible alternatives will vary greatly.  One thing the employer cannot do is ignore the worker's request for relief.  Yet, that is what AutoZone did in the case of EEOC v. AutoZone, 2013 WL 561587, No. 12-1017 (7th Cir. 2/15/13).  See opinion here

The worker had a back injury that was aggravated by mopping the floors.  But, AutoZone ignored his requests for relief. John Shepherd was required to continue with the mopping.  The mopping made his back worse and he then needed leave from work for treatment.  When Mr. Shepherd tried to return to work after the treatment, AutoZone refused to let him return. 

Yet, the Magistrate Judge granted summary judgment on the accommodation claim.  The other claims went to trial and lost.  The Seventh Circuit reversed the grant of summary judgment.  On remand back at the trial court, a jury found in favor of Mr. Shepherd and awarded him $100,000 in compensatory damages, and $500,000 in punitive damages.  The Magistrate Judge awarded $115,000 in lost pay and benefits.  The punitive damages exceeded the $300,000 cap, so they were reduced.  

On appeal, AutoZone argued that in the first trial, the court found that mopping the floors was an essential function of the job.  Since he could not perform that function, the worker was precluded from coverage under the ADA.  Yet, in the second trial, the jury found just the opposite, that mopping was not an essential function of the job. 

The Seventh Circuit ruled that the two juries looked at two different time periods, one before Mr. Shepherd's back flared up and one after the flare-up.  His back was in different stages of recovery.  Because the issues in the two trials were different, the employer cannot argue that the issue was decided in the first trial and is binding.

Regarding the punitive damages issues, the employer argued that it had a system in place to address requests for accommodation.  But, said the Court, the system broke down.  The lead disability coordinator's testimony suggested that she was dismissive of the worker's requests.  It appeared that she was aware of the disability but only spoke of it as a hypothetical.  The employer wrote a letter excusing Mr. Shepherd from mopping, but only after his back flared up and the condition worsened. 

And, said the court, the jury could conclude that the employer did not act in good faith since any written anti-discrimination policy was not introduced into evidence and the policy talked about by the HR witness was not followed. 

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