Walmart loses appeal of finding it acted with "malice or reckless disregard" in violating worker's ADA rights
By Gretchen Schuldt
Walmart must pay a jury verdict to a former employee of a Beloit store who lost his job after a store manager decided the employee’s disabilities prevented him from doing his job as a cart attendant, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The three-judge panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the jury's conclusion that the employee, Paul Reina, could adequately perform his job as cart attendant. The panel rejected Walmart's argument that a full-time job coach is never a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The district court had awarded Reina $200,000 in compensatory damages plus punitive damages. The appeals court declined Walmart's request to reverse the punitive damages award on the ground that the theory of liability was novel.
The panel also rejected a request by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for an injunction that would require Walmart to take numerous steps to prevent future discrimination.
“Because the jury had sufficient evidence to find as it did and because the district court did not abuse its discretion, we affirm,” U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas L. Kirsch II wrote for the panel. He was joined by Circuit Judges Frank H. Easterbrook and Ilana D. Rovner.
The decision upheld an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson of the Western District of Wisconsin. The jury awarded Reina $5 million in punitive damages, but Peterson reduced the amount to $100,000 to satisfy a statutory damages cap.
Reina worked for Walmart from 1998 to 2015. He is deaf and legally blind and has anxiety, according to the decision. He communicates through sign language, gestures, and facial expressions and was assisted in his job by Medicaid-paid full-time job coaches. He had three different coaches over the course of his employment.
All apparently was fine until a new manager took over the store in 2015. Another employee, who did not witness the incident, reported that Reina and his job coach were fighting in the parking lot. The manager did not review what happened, but decided to watch Reina at work. He expressed concern that Reina’s job coach was doing “90-95% of Reina’s job,” Kirsch wrote.
The manager eventually suspended Reina and told Reina’s foster mother to fill out paperwork as if Reina were a new employee. That included having a doctor fill out a medical accommodation questionnaire.
Communication stopped for almost a year, and Reina filed a complaint with the EEOC. Then, in March 2016, Walmart wrote to Reina asking him to continue the employment process.
The EEOC sued on Reina’s behalf, alleging that Walmart discriminated against Reina and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Walmart sought summary dismissal, arguing that Reina could not perform the essential functions of his job and that a full-time job coach was never a reasonable accommodation. Peterson denied the motion, ruling that those were questions for a jury. Peterson also rejected Walmart’s request that the trial be broken into two phases, one to determine liability and a second to determine damages.
Both sides agreed on the essential functions of a cart attendant, Kirsch wrote. Peterson also adopted Walmart’s recommended jury instructions. But at trial, Walmart lost. A jury found that Walmart violated the ADA by failing to provide Reina with a reasonable accommodation and by ending Reina’s employment because of his disability. It also found that Walmart acted with malice or reckless disregard of Reina’s rights under the ADA, Kirsch said.
Walmart argued on appeal that Reina could not perform important parts of his job, which include retrieving, organizing, and managing traditional and motorized carts and providing customer service, Kirsch wrote.
“But its theory on appeal asks us to reweigh evidence as if this were a jury trial,” he said. “Rather than come to grips with the evidence presented at trial and evaluated by the jury, Walmart signals that we should determine de novo which cart attendant functions were essential and whether Reina was able to perform those functions.”
At trial, Kirsch wrote, two of Reina’s job coaches testified that he was able to perform the essential functions. One testified that Reina “was able to do the job with very minimal intervention from me, no hand or anything like that.” The other said that Reina “had complete control” over the carts so that the coach had no “physical role in steering the train of carts [Reina] was pushing.”
“Walmart argues that Reina was unable to perform the essential functions of a cart attendant because he could not steer the carts safely by himself, but a reasonable jury could disagree and, apparently, did,” Kirsch wrote. “We will not second-guess its weighing of the evidence.”
Walmart also argued that Reina could not perform essential functions of his job because he could not handle motorized carts by himself.
“And the jury reasonably could have determined that retrieving motorized carts was not an essential function based on the evidence before it: that motorized carts were abandoned in the parking lot only once or twice a month," Kirsch wrote.
The jury also had enough information to find that customer service was not an essential function of Reina’s job, he said. And even if it was an essential function, there was enough evidence to find that Reina performed it.
A job coach testified that “Reina could point customers in the right direction when they asked for something in the parking lot,” Kirsch wrote. “Reina regularly helped people load things into their cars and helped elderly customers by collecting their empty carts so that they would not have to walk them back themselves. Customers told (the coach) that seeing Reina work there made them feel proud of Walmart. And Reina’s performance evaluations from Walmart praised him for being friendly and courteous.”
In rejecting Walmart’s argument that a full-time job coach is never a reasonable accommodation – a rule no other circuit has created – Kirsch noted that an employer is not required to pay for having two people do the same work.
“But neither Reina nor the EEOC asked for Walmart to pay for Reina’s job coaches,” he wrote. “So we need not decide when, if ever, that would be required as a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.”
The jury had sufficient evidence to find for the EEOC, he wrote.
The panel also said that the EEOC’s theory of liability was “by no means ‘novel.’ ”
“Because our case law bases the definition of reasonable accommodation on the circumstance specific question of essential functions, Walmart was on notice that a jury could find a full-time job coach to be a reasonable accommodation for Reina if he or she did not perform the essential functions of Reina’s job," Kirsch said. "Contrary to what Walmart argues, it’s not an open question whether a permanent job coach can be a reasonable accommodation," Kirsch wrote.
Peterson also did not abuse his discretion in denying Walmart’s request for a two-part trial, the appeals court said.
“Time and again, the district court gave limiting instructions to mitigate any potential prejudice to Walmart due to a unified trial,” Kirsch said. ”And nothing in the record disposes us to disagree with the district court’s conclusion that judicial efficiency favored no bifurcation in this case.”
In rejecting the EEOC’s request for an injunction, the panel found that Peterson did not abuse his discretion ”in evaluating factors and concluding that ‘this incident at one store involved unique circumstances that do not justify the far-reaching injunction that EEOC seeks.’ ”
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