The $125 Million Per Hour Accommodation

A Wisconsin jury did not like that WalMart discharged an employee with Down syndrome after she was unable to adjust to a one-hour shift change.  For the giant retailer, there was no everyday low price for its mistake–the jury charged a whopping $125 million verdict.

The case is actually quite interesting.  It pits the needs of an employee against what an employer contends are its needs to manage scheduling.  And, of course, it shows the risks of jury trials for employers, particularly those with expansive resources.  Basically, the jury penalized WalMart for making the employee comply with a one-hour shift change, imposed on her and other store employees after WalMart studied data on customer-flow through the store.  When the employee’s Down syndrome condition made the change too stressful, she asked for her old schedule back.  WalMart said no and, as she missed work, the company applied progressive discipline and eventually fired her.

Undoubtedly, the sympathies were with the disabled employee, who had been a good long-term worker and valued her job.  The lawsuit is a good reminder that not just the EEOC, which litigated the case for the employee, but also ordinary folks in a jury box will expect employers to bend attendance rules for the disabled unless there is truly undue hardship on the business.  According to the EEOC and this jury, uniformly enforcing rules for the sake of uniformly enforcing was a losing defense.

The ADA includes caps on damages, and the massive $125 million award is a statement more than a reality: non-wage damages for an employer of WalMart’s size are capped at $300,000.  Still, a resounding victory for the EEOC.