$56,500 Award in Disability Discrimination Case Involving Employee with Bipolar Disorder, Training Ordered

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Question:  Would disability discrimination training have prevented this case?  See our trainings at http://www.hrclassroom.com.
The U.S. Equal Employment  Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced a victory in one of its first  disability discrimination lawsuits taken to trial concerning bipolar disorder. Following a four-day bench trial, a federal  district court entered judgment for $56,500 against Irving, Tex.-based Cottonwood  Financial. The court found that the company  violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Washington Law Against  Discrimination (WLAD) when it fired an employee from its Walla Walla, Wash.,  store.

After hearing the evidence  presented at trial in EEOC v. Cottonwood  Financial, Ltd. (No. CV-09-5073-EFS, E. D. Wash.), U.S. District Judge  Edward F. Shea noted “Cottonwood’s deficient ADA policies and practices” and found  that the company’s half-dozen different rationales for terminating store manager  Sean Reilly were a pretext for discrimination and that the company had in fact  fired Reilly because it regarded him as too disabled to work due to his bipolar  disorder.

The court also commended Reilly’s  efforts to cope with his disability, achieve academic success and get a job. Reilly was an honor student in high school  who attended college in Portland,  Ore. on an academic  scholarship. While in college, he was  diagnosed with bipolar disorder. When his  symptoms forced him to leave school, he returned home to Walla  Walla and found employment at Cottonwood,  which does business as The Cash Store.

Hired as an  assistant manager in June 2006, Reilly was swiftly promoted to store manager in  October and received an award for the success of his store in November  2006. However, in late January 2007, Reilly,  through a health care representative, requested a short leave to adjust to new  medication prescribed by his doctor to treat his condition. Reilly alleged that the company denied this  request, forcing him to return to work too soon. The Cash Store fired Reilly in February 2007 –  just days after his need for sick leave first arose.

The ADA and WLAD outlaw firing an employee due to  disability and prohibit adverse employment decisions motivated, even in part,  by ill will toward an employee’s real or perceived disability or request for an  accommodation. After first trying to  reach a voluntary settlement with Cottonwood through the EEOC’s conciliation  process, the agency filed suit and was joined by Reilly, through his private  counsel, Keller W. Allen of Spokane.

Judge Shea found that The Cash Store broke the  law by firing Reilly and awarded him $6,500 in back wages and $50,000 for  emotional pain and suffering. The court  also issued a three-year injunction, requiring The Cash Store to train its  managers and human resources personnel on anti-discrimination and  anti-retaliation laws.

After the final order was announced,  Reilly said, “It felt as if several years of emotional damage had suddenly been  healed. After my diagnosis, I really  challenged myself to beat the odds and do well at work. To have my disability outweigh my performance  in my employer’s eyes was crushing.”

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