$424,045 Award in Reasonable Accommodation of Disabilities Lawsuit Against AutoZone

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A federal court  has ordered AutoZone, Inc., a leading auto parts retailer, to reasonably  accommodate the disabilities of its retail employees throughout central Illinois. 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.

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.

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.

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  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.

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.
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