Jury orders Walmart to pay $125 million after it fired worker with Down syndrome

Credit: (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Walmart Inc. lost a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin when a jury sided with a sales associate who has Down syndrome and alleged that the company fired her because of her disability.

Marlo Spaeth worked for Walmart for about 16 years before she was fired from its Manitowoc store in 2015 due to excessive absenteeism. According to the lawsuit, brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Spaeth’s work schedule changed after Walmart implemented a new computerized system in 2014, which created significant difficulty for her.

Spaeth’s condition requires that she maintain a rigid schedule of daily activities, the lawsuit said. Spaeth requested that she be allowed to resume her prior work schedule of noon to 4 p.m, because if she did not eat dinner at the same time every night, she would get sick, the lawsuit said. Instead of returning her to the old schedule, Walmart fired her, Spaeth alleged. Walmart also refused to rehire her when Spaeth requested it, the lawsuit said.

“Ms. Spaeth’s request was a simple one and denying it profoundly altered her life,” Julianne Bowman, Chicago District Director for the EEOC, said in a statement.

The jury in federal court in Green Bay awarded Marlo Spaeth more than $125 million in punitive damages on Thursday. The jury also awarded Spaeth $150,000 in compensatory damages, the EEOC said Friday in announcing the ruling.

Reduced damages

“The substantial jury verdict in this case sends a strong message to employers that disability discrimination is unacceptable in our nation’s workplaces,” EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows said in a statement.

Walmart is likely to pay much less than the substantial verdict the jury awarded. A company spokesman told the Associated Press Friday the damages will be reduced to the maximum allowed, which is $300,000.

Spokesman Randy Hargrove said the retail giant was reviewing its legal options, and said that Walmart does not tolerate discrimination of any kind and routinely accommodates thousands of employees every year.

“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,” Hargrove said. “We’re sensitive to this situation and believe we could have resolved this issue with Ms. Spaeth, however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable.”

The jury found that Walmart failed to accommodate Spaeth’s disability and fired her because of it, which is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the EEOC said.

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