Before discussing the jury verdict, I’ll tell you a little about how we got here.
Let’s go back to New Year’s Eve 2020 when the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced (here) that it had sued a distribution company for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to interview a qualified applicant because she was deaf.
According to the EEOC’s complaint, a deaf individual applied for two warehouse positions at one of the company’s warehouses for which she was fully qualified. The company contacted her the same day and left a message. She then returned the call using a Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS), which uses an operator to facilitate calls for people with hearing and speech disabilities. After being contacted via TRS, the company did not return her call and rejected her application the next day. The company subsequently filled the positions with individuals who were not deaf.
There could have been many reasons why the company opted not to hire this individual. But if her disabilities were a motivating factor in that decision, the company violated the ADA.
Fast forward to 2023, when the employer moved for summary judgment. In support, it argues that the decisionmakers did not know that the job seeker had a disability, let alone that she had hearing and speech impairments. However, the judge concluded that a reasonable person might divine that company representatives involved in the TRS call would have concluded that the applicant was using the TRS because she had issues with her hearing or speech.
Additionally, the court reasoned that the defendant rejected the job seeker’s application earlier than it ordinarily would have because the defendant learned of the applicant’s disability and not because the defendant did not hear back from the applicant or the applicant’s lack of preferred qualifications.
And that brings us to yesterday when a jury heard the evidence for itself and found in favor of the applicant.
The jury awarded the deaf applicant $25,000 in back pay, $150,000 in emotional distress damages, and $1.5 million in punitive damages, i.e., “with malice or reckless indifference” to the employee’s federally protected rights.
Grand total: $1,675,000.
The ADA caps punitive damages at $300,000, depending on the employer’s size. So, whatever else happens on appeal — I’m assuming there will be an appeal of some sort — the plaintiff will only recover $475,000 max.
Nonetheless, an employer learned an expensive ADA lesson.
“The law requires an even playing field to ensure that applicants with disabilities have the same job opportunities as all other candidates for open positions,” said one EEOC official.
Imagine how many workers that company could have hired for $1.65M.