Jury Whacks Walmart with $5.2 Million Verdict In Favor of Disabled Worker

Walmart.JPG

A federal jury in Wisconsin awarded a disabled Walmart Inc. employee $5.2 million in damages, finding that the retail chain had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to accommodate the long-time worker.

The employee, who has a developmental disability and is deaf and visually impaired had worked as a cart pusher at the store for 16 years before a new manager started at the store. The new store manager suspended the employee in his first month and forced him to resubmit medical paperwork to keep his reasonable accommodations, according to the lawsuit. The store then fired the employee.

Last week a Wisconsin jury found in the employee’s favor after a 3½-day trial and awarded him $200,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $5 million in punitive damages. Sadly, this amount will likely be reduced by operation of the statutory damages caps found in the ADA. These caps have not been adjusted for inflation in almost 30 years.

Does the ADA Require Business Websites to be Accessible?

Domino’s Seeks SCOTUS Review

Domino’s Seeks SCOTUS Review

In January the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision allowing a blind plaintiff to proceed with his ADA Title III lawsuit against Domino’s Pizza for having an allegedly inaccessible website and mobile app.  The court determined that allowing the claim to move forward was not a violation of Domino’s due process rights, even though the ADA and its regulations contain no definition of, or technical specifications for, “accessible” public accommodations websites. It now appears that Domino’s is planning to try to take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Domino’s recently requested a 60 day extension of time to file a petition with the Supreme Court asking for it to review the case. The request was granted by Justice Kagan. Domino’s Petition for Certiorari is now due on June 14, 2019.

This is an important issue to many. From the business-side of the fence, companies are facing an increasing number of lawsuits relating to the accessibility of their websites while they have not received much guidance from the courts or the Department of Labor as to what they are required to do in order to make their websites properly accessible. For those with certain disabilities, the transition of much or our day-to-day commerce from brick and mortar stores to the online world has increasingly left them out.

It is an important issue that deserves attention from both the courts and the Department of Labor.

Read Domino’s Motion Here.

UPDATE: In an order dated October 7, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Domino’s appeal. This means that, at least for now, the Ninth Circuit’s decision stands.

One Senator Blocks Trump-Nominated Reappointment of EEOC’s only LGBTQ Commissioner

Chai Feldblum, a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Chai Feldblum, a member of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

GOP senator Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah has used his power in the Senate to block the reappointment of the EEOC’s only LGBTQ commissioner, Chai Feldblum, because her existence is a "threat to marriage."

This is a real blow to American workers, especially those who are disabled. Feldblum, an Obama appointee who was re-nominated by President Trump, has spent most of her time on the Commission championing the rights of the disabled in the workplace.

In her capacity as an EEOC commissioner, she has little to nothing to do with any laws or policies having to do with marriage. So when it comes down to it Senator Lee doesn't like her because she is a lesbian.

Meanwhile, this will leave the EEOC without a quorum in 2019, making it more difficult for the agency to conduct business.

In my opinion, Sen. Lee is abusing his power as a member of the U.S. Senate. To block a Trump-appointee who has a long track record of being a strong advocate for workers in general and the disabled in particular based on nothing more than one’s personal religious preference is misguided and harmful to an extremely important federal agency.

I don't think anyone should be very happy about it.

Read the entire story here.

Tort Reform Is A Lie: Hot Coffee Still Being Used to Mislead

Here's the lie:

The lies used to support corporate efforts to continue to restrict regular people's access to the courthouse are powerful. And, sadly, they work. Routinely, potential clients who are sitting in my office will reference the famous McDonalds "Hot Coffee" case and try to assure me that their case isn't like the Hot Coffee case.  Their case is real. 

Here's the thing, the story everyone knows about the Hot Coffee case is a myth. It's a lie pushed by big business and their tort "reform" groups to poison the minds of potential jurors and make it harder for those who have been legitimately injured to received fair compensation. 

So, What Happened?:

In 1992, 79-year-old Stella Liebeck bought a cup of takeout coffee at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Albuquerque and spilled it on her lap. She sued McDonald’s and a jury awarded her nearly $3 million in punitive damages for the burns she suffered.

Before you hear all the facts, your initial reaction might be "Isn’t coffee supposed to be hot?" or "McDonald’s didn’t pour the coffee on her, she spilled it on herself!" But that would be before you hear all the facts.

Here are the facts:

Mrs. Liebeck was not driving when her coffee spilled, nor was the car she was in moving. She was the passenger in a car that was stopped in the parking lot of the McDonald’s where she bought the coffee. She had the cup between her knees while removing the lid to add cream and sugar when the cup tipped over and spilled the entire contents on her lap.

The coffee was not just “hot.” It was very dangerously hot. McDonald’s policy was to serve it at an extremely hot temperature that could cause serious burns in seconds. Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries were far from minor. She was wearing sweatpants that absorbed the coffee and kept it against her skin. She suffered third-degree burns (the most serious kind) and required skin grafts on her inner thighs and elsewhere. (See the video above for pictures.)

Importantly Mrs. Liebeck’s case was far from an isolated event. McDonald’s had received more than 700 previous reports of injury from its coffee, including reports of third-degree burns, and had paid settlements in some cases.

Mrs. Liebeck offered to settle the case for $20,000 to cover her medical expenses and lost income. But McDonald’s never offered more than $800, so the case went to trial. The jury found Mrs. Liebeck to be partially at fault for her injuries, reducing the compensation for her injuries accordingly.

But the jury’s punitive damages award made headlines — upset by McDonald’s unwillingness to correct a policy despite hundreds of people suffering injuries, they awarded Liebeck the equivalent of two days’ worth of revenue from coffee sales for the restaurant chain. Two days. That wasn’t, however, the end of it. The original punitive damage award was ultimately reduced by more than 80 percent by the judge. And, to avoid what likely would have been years of appeals, Mrs. Liebeck and McDonald’s later reached a confidential settlement for even less than that.

Here is just some of the evidence the jury heard during the trial:  

  • McDonald’s operations manual required the franchisee to hold its coffee at 180 to 190 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Coffee at that temperature, if spilled, causes third-degree burns in three to seven seconds.
  • The chairman of the department of mechanical engineering and biomechanical engineering at the University of Texas testified that this risk of harm is unacceptable, as did a widely recognized expert on burns, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Burn Care and Rehabilitation, the leading scholarly publication in the specialty.
  • McDonald’s admitted it had known about the risk of serious burns from its scalding hot coffee for more than 10 years. The risk had repeatedly been brought to its attention through numerous other claims and suits.
  • An expert witness for the company testified that the number of burns was insignificant compared to the billions of cups of coffee the company served each year.
  • At least one juror later told the Wall Street Journal she thought the company wasn’t taking the injuries seriously. To the corporate restaurant giant those 700 injury cases caused by hot coffee seemed relatively rare compared to the millions of cups of coffee served. But, the juror noted, “there was a person behind every number and I don’t think the corporation was attaching enough importance to that.”
  • McDonald’s quality assurance manager testified that McDonald’s coffee, at the temperature at which it was poured into Styrofoam cups, was not fit for consumption because it would burn the mouth and throat.
  • McDonald’s admitted at trial that consumers were unaware of the extent of the risk of serious burns from spilled coffee served at McDonald’s then-required temperature.
  • McDonald’s admitted it did not warn customers of the nature and extent of this risk and could offer no explanation as to why it did not.

After the verdict, one of the jurors said over the course of the trial he came to realize the case was about “callous disregard for the safety of the people.” Another juror said “the facts were so overwhelmingly against the company.”

That’s because those jurors were able to hear all the facts — including those presented by McDonald’s — and see the extent of Mrs. Liebeck’s injuries.

But that's not the story that the public has heard. Tort reform advocates lied about the facts of the case and the fake story gained traction. It went viral. So viral that now this story is what is most often cited by jurors and others when explaining why they don't trust lawyers, why they don't like lawsuits, and why they think plaintiffs are just out for a quick buck. 

And it's all a lie.

 

 

If you want to read more, start here.

Jury awards $769,000 Against Washington University in Disability Discrimination Case

A St. Louis woman has won a $769,000 verdict against Washington University in a trial alleging the school refused to accommodate her disability and then fired her.

The plaintiff, age 55, worked as a researcher at the university's medical school from 1996 to 2012 and had herniated disks, according to her lawsuit. She claimed her back problems caused her extreme pain in certain positions "including but not limited to cell culture and bench work" and that the university and her supervisor discriminated against her by not accommodating her condition.

Her lawyer said the university in November 2012 fired her from her cancer research position, telling her the school had lost funding for her projects. Her lawsuit said her firing was in retaliation for her request that she not be required to sit and bend over for excessive periods of time.

After a five-day trial in St. Louis Circuit Court, the jury Friday awarded Lin $269,000 in actual damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.

It should be noted that St. Louis is seen by many as being one of the most plaintiff-friendly venues in the country so your mileage may vary. 

Read the story here.

 

 

Can You Trust Your Company's HR Department?

A fellow blogger has a post out this week titled "Who Do You Report Harassment To If the Harasser Is the CEO?".  It is a thoughtful article and it makes the excellent point that HR for every company needs to bake into their policies a method by which an employee can internally report sexual harassment being committed by the CEO or owner of a company without risk of retaliation. I think that is an excellent goal to strive for and I hope that all HR departments set that as a goal.  There is only one problem with the premise of the article. 

The effort will almost certainly fail. 

Michael Corleone: "C'mon Frankie... my father did business with HR, he respected HR."
Frank Pentangeli: "Your father did business with HR, he respected HR... but he never trusted HR!"

 

 

HR is, in my opinion, possibly the most challenging role for any manager to do and do well. It is arguably designed to fail. The problem is obvious: HR serves two masters. On the one hand, HR is designed to serve as a helpful ombudsman to employees. To assist employees who are being mistreated. To conduct thorough investigations and correct inappropriate behavior against employees. On the other hand, HR is required to defend management against accusations of unlawful employment practices. HR is usually directly involved in the termination decisions that lead to EEOC filings. HR is then in charge of or at least heavily involved in drafting the company's defensive statement of position filings, arguing that the company is blameless. Thus, the very department that an employee is supposed to trust with his or her career and feel comfortable making a complaint to is the same department that will be spearheading the fight against the employee when it all goes south. 

What this means in most companies is that, no, you cannot trust HR to help you. While many HR officers have their hearts in the right place when they start working in the field, they can't help but know who is responsible for signing their paychecks. Hint: it's not the employee bringing a complaint against a member of management.  

So, should you bring complaints to HR? Yes, you should. In fact, in many cases you are legally required to do so or you risk waiving any claims you may have against the company for the discrimination or harassment you are reporting. Just don't assume that HR's only role is to help you. Because it isn't. While HR may be trying to assist you they are also assessing corporate risk, documenting your complaint in a way that will assist the company in defending against your complaint, and looking for ways to satisfy the demands of management. 

Here are a couple of quick tips: 

  1. Make all reports in writing. When push comes to shove down the road, HR is liable to either not "remember" you made a complaint or to remember it substantially differently than you do. Putting your report in writing is the only way to prove you made a complaint, when you made it, and to whom the complaint was made.  
  2. You know that written report from number 1, above?  KEEP A COPY. A written complaint does you know good if you send the only copy to HR. It might...you know...get lost. 
  3. Consider going outside the organization to the EEOC. If your complaint involves EEO-based (age, sex, race, religion disability, color) discrimination or harassment then consider making a complaint to the EEOC sooner rather than later. There will be little question that a report to the EEOC is protected activity under the law. This gives you a somewhat higher level of protection from retaliation than if you merely report internally. 
  4.  Consult with an employment lawyer. If you are in a situation in which you feel you need to make a complaint against management then, make no mistake, you job IS at risk. Start looking for a qualified employment attorney who represents employees. Be warned, in many parts of the country there aren't that many who lawyers who specialize in representing employees. So start looking before you need one. And don't expect such a lawyer to visit with you for free. This is not a simple car accident case and you aren't looking for a PI lawyer who can take your case on a contingent fee basis. Employment law is very specialized and contingency fees are generally not available for consulting services. If you find a qualified lawyer to advise you, however, it is money well spent. 

Bottom line: Yes, you should report harassment or discrimination internally to your company's HR department. But that doesn't mean you should blindly trust the HR department. Understand that they serve two masters and protect yourself accordingly.