MADISON, Wis. — Walmart Inc. lost a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin when a jury sided with a sales associate who has Down syndrome and alleged that schedule changes exacerbated attendance problems that led to her firing.
The jury in federal court in Green Bay awarded Marlo Spaeth more than $125 million in punitive damages on Thursday, but a Walmart spokesman said Friday that under federal law, that will be reduced to the maximum allowed, which is $300,000.
The jury also awarded Spaeth $150,000 in compensatory damages, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Friday in announcing the ruling. The EEOC brought the case against Walmart.
“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 spokesman Randy Hargrove said the retail giant was reviewing its legal options. He said 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.”
Spaeth worked for Walmart for about 16 years before she was fired from its Manitowoc store in 2015 due to excessive absenteeism. Changes to her work schedule following implementation of a new computerized system in 2014 created significant difficulty for her, the lawsuit alleged.
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.
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.