Walmart loses EEOC incapacity discrimination lawsuit

Shoppers walk in front of a Walmart store in San Leandro, California, U.S., on Thursday, May 13, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

A jury ruled that Walmart must pay more than $125 million in damages in a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency said Friday.

The lawsuit alleged the retailer violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination based on a person’s disability. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Marlo Spaeth, a 16-year Walmart employee who has Down syndrome, in a federal court in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Spaeth worked at a Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, which is about 40 miles southeast of Green Bay. 

In the lawsuit, the federal agency said the retailer changed Spaeth’s longtime work schedule and refused to accommodate her requests for different hours, even though she faced challenges because of her disability. It said she struggled to keep up with the new hours, leading to disciplinary action for absenteeism. Ultimately, the company fired Spaeth, though she had gotten positive performance reviews from managers. It also declined to rehire her, even after her mother and sister tried to intervene and find a solution, the EEOC said.

“Employers, no matter how large, have an obligation under the law to evaluate the individual circumstances of employees with disabilities when considering requests for reasonable accommodations,” Chicago District Director Julianne Bowman said in a press release. “Ms. Spaeth’s request was a simple one and denying it profoundly altered her life.”

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the company is reviewing its next steps. He said the retailer wanted to resolve the matter with Spaeth, but said the EEOC’s demands “were unreasonable.”

He said the verdict will be reduced to $300,000, the maximum allowed under federal law.

However, EEOC spokeswoman Kim Dulic said in an email that the statutory cap “does not apply to backpay, frontpay, interest, or litigation costs.” She said the judge will decide those amounts at a later date.

“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year,” Hargrove said. “We often adjust associate schedules to meet our customers’ expectations and while Ms. Spaeth’s schedule was adjusted, it remained within the times she indicated she was available.”

In late day trading Friday, Walmart’s shares were relatively unchanged at $141.83. The retailer’s shares have fallen nearly 2% so far this year.

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