Final Judgment of $415,000 to be Awarded to Disabled Former Employee
PEORIA, Ill. -- A federal court has ordered AutoZone, Inc., a leading auto parts retailer, to reasonably accommodate the disabilities of its retail employees throughout central Illinois, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today. Entering final judgment in a disability discrimination suit brought by the EEOC, the court also held the company liable for $415,000 in damages and lost wages and $9,045 in litigation costs.
On June 3, 2011, a federal jury found that AutoZone violated the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to accommodate the disability of a sales manager at its Macomb, Ill. store. At trial, the EEOC presented evidence that the employee was required to perform cleaning tasks that violated his medical restrictions and resulted in an injury and severe physical pain. The sales manager, who worked at the company until 2003, is disabled with permanent back and neck impairments. Under the ADA, a reasonable accommodation may include the elimination or modification of a non-essential job duty, or the transfer of a non-essential job duty to another employee.
In an order dated Nov. 8, 2011, the court granted the EEOC’s post-trial request for an injunction, in part, finding that “the conduct of the defendant’s managerial employees at the highest level was clearly an intentional violation of the ADA” and that there was a “possibility of future infractions.” The injunction applies to all of the company’s retail stores within the Central District of Illinois, a federal judicial district encompassing 46 Illinois counties. AutoZone will also be required to report all requests for reasonable accommodations in that region to the EEOC for a period of three years, and to maintain records of the company’s responses to such requests for a period of four years.
The court rejected a request by AutoZone to reduce the jury’s award of compensatory and punitive damages below the statutory maximum of $300,000. Citing evidence of the sales manager’s “near daily pain for 6 months and ... need for physical therapy and other medical attention,” the court upheld the jury’s award of $100,000 in compensatory damages. The court reduced the jury’s punitive damages award from $500,000 to $200,000, in order to bring total damages within the $300,000 statutory cap. The court declined to reduce the award any further, however, noting that it was supported by evidence that the company’s managers “knew of but chose to ignore their obligations under the ADA” to accommodate the employee’s disability. The court additionally found AutoZone liable for $115,000 in lost wages, and $9,045 in litigation costs incurred by the EEOC.
“Over the past year, the EEOC has filed more than 60 cases nationwide challenging disability discrimination,” said EEOC General Counsel P. David Lopez. “This victory demonstrates that the Commission will continue to dismantle barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Employers mustmake decisions based ontheir employee's abilities, and not on their disabilities.”
At trial, the government was represented by EEOC Trial Attorneys Justin Mulaire and Aaron DeCamp. The EEOC’s district court litigation was supervised by Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour. The trial followed a successful appeal of an earlier summary judgment ruling in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals (EEOC v. AutoZone, 630 F.3d 635 (7th Cir. 2010)). On appeal, the government was represented by Attorney Eric A. Harrington and Assistant General Counsel Carolyn L. Wheeler, both of the EEOC’s Appellate Services unit.
“The EEOC’s primary goal in filing suit is to prevent and deter future violations of the law,” said Mulaire. “We hope today’s judgment will help ensure that, going forward, employees with disabilities have a fair opportunity to succeed at AutoZone.”
John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago, said, “While we are able to resolve most of our litigation through settlement, this case illustrates the EEOC’s commitment to litigating cases to judgment when necessary to vindicate the public interest. The objective of every EEOC case, whether large or small, is the same: to make equal employment opportunity the reality in the workplace.”
The EEOC filed suit in 2007, after first attempting to reach a voluntary settlement. The case was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois, Peoria Division, was designated Civil Action No. 07-cv-1154, and was assigned to U.S. Magistrate Judge John A. Gorman for all purposes, including trial and entry of judgment.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the agency is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov.