The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought the case. It alleged the company failed to provide reasonable accommodations to Marlo Spaeth, an employee with Down Syndrome. Allegedly, the company eventually fired Spaeth due to her disability.
The Case Against Walmart
The EEOC presented evidence indicating that Walmart decided to change Spaeth’s work schedule, modifying its long-standing pattern. The new schedule caused hardships for Spaeth, who requested that Walmart adjust her start and end times. She requested a return to her previous schedule, which worked well for her. Instead, according to the EEOC, Walmart fired Spaeth and refused to rehire her.
Walmart fired Spaeth in July 2015. At the time, Spaeth had worked for the company for approximately 16 years.
At trial, the jury found that Walmart failed to provide reasonable accommodations as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). The jury also found that Walmart violated the ADA in Spaeth’s rehiring decision. They determined Walmart decided not to rehire Spaeth due to her disability or the need to provide reasonable accommodations for it.
The jury awarded Spaeth $150,000 in compensatory damages and $125,000,000 in punitive damages.
ADA Violations and the Walmart Discrimination Lawsuit
The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination based on actual or perceived disabilities. Among other things, the ADA requires employers to provide “reasonable accommodations” for a worker’s disability.
Which accommodations are “reasonable” depends on a number of factors. Factors include the employer’s available resources, the accommodations required, and whether the employer demonstrated previously that the accommodations are workable.
During the case, the EEOC presented evidence that Spaeth maintained the same schedule for several years before Walmart made changes. While Spaeth’s schedule remained unchanged, Spaeth received consistently positive reviews and feedback from her managers. However, the schedule change proved challenging for Spaeth. She struggled to keep up with the new hours and eventually faced disciplinary action for absenteeism.
Spaeth’s mother and sister attempted to help her reach a resolution with Walmart, They requested Spaeth’s schedule revert to its previous instance. Walmart argued that returning to Spaeth’s previous schedule would have been unreasonable. The company noted that the changed schedule remained within the hours Spaeth had stated she was available to work.
How Damages Exceeded $125 Million
The jury deliberated for approximately three hours before rendering its verdict. Before ruling in Spaeth’s favor, however, the jury asked whether it was limited in the damages amount it could set. The court told the jury it had no limits, after which it returned the verdict for $125,150,000.
Nevertheless, the judge later reduced the verdict to the statutory maximum of $300,000 by the judge. Walmart may have to pay additional amounts to cover Spaeth’s back pay, front pay, litigation costs, and interest. Those amounts will be calculated at a later date, according to the EEOC.
The case is not the first where the court required Walmart Stores to pay to settle an EEOC disability discrimination lawsuit. In 2019, for example, Walmart Stores East, LP agreed to a $100,000 settlement. The settlement focused on resolving claims that the company refused to provide reasonable accommodations. The accommodations were for two deaf employees who worked at a Walmart store in Washington DC. That store was also required to provide ADA-related training to managers and staff in the wake of the lawsuit.