Appeals Court Upholds Injunction and $415,000 Award to Disabled Former Employee
CHICAGO - The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has affirmed a $424,000 judgment (including $9,000 in costs) against AutoZone, Inc. for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced today. The decision also upholds an injunction requiring the national auto parts retailer to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with physical disabilities in all of its stores in central Illinois.
The EEOC filed suit (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., Civil Action No. 07-cv-1154) in U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois in 2007, after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. At trial, the EEOC presented evidence that the company's managers insisted that Parts Sales Manager John P. Shepherd III mop floors at the end of the day, an activity that aggravated Shepherd's back impairment and caused intense pain. As the Court of Appeals recounted, "Shepherd's store manager called him a good salesman who could 'sell ice cubes to an Eskimo,' and noted that customers would specifically ask for Shepherd's assistance. As a result, Shepherd averaged the highest sales per customer among the employees at his store in 2003." The EEOC presented evidence that despite repeated requests from Shepherd and his doctor, company officials refused to eliminate the mopping assignments, eventually causing serious injury.
The ADA requires that employers make reasonable accommodations to the known physical limitations of employees with disabilities. Such accommodations may include the elimination or modification of a non-essential job duty, or the transfer of a non-essential job duty to another employee.
On June 3, 2011, a federal jury in Peoria, Ill., awarded $100,000 in compensatory damages for physical and emotional pain and suffering. The jury also awarded $500,000 in punitive damages for what the trial judge described as "total and knowing disregard for the underlying purpose of the ADA." The judge later reduced the punitive damages award to $200,000 to comply with a statutory limit on damages, but added $115,000 in lost wages. AutoZone was assessed $9,000 in litigation costs.
On Feb. 15, 2013, the Court of Appeals rejected AutoZone's appeal, holding that there was no basis for granting judgment to the company as a matter of law or for ordering a new trial. The court upheld the award of compensatory damages, citing evidence that Shepherd "experienced near-daily pain" as a result of AutoZone's violation. Noting that "AutoZone's dismissiveness of Shepherd's health concerns occurred on multiple occasions and was not an isolated incident," the court also concluded "that AutoZone's conduct was sufficiently reprehensible to justify imposing punitive damages." An injunction requiring AutoZone to provide reasonable accommodations for employees in all of its central Illinois stores was remanded to the district court in order to specify an expiration date, but was otherwise also affirmed.
This is the second appellate victory for the EEOC in this case. An earlier appeal (EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., 630 F.3d 635 (7th Cir. 2010)) reversed a summary judgment decision and led to the June 2011 trial. An earlier trial, in September 2009, resolved other claims in AutoZone's favor.
"The employee in this case was a good worker and an excellent salesman, and denying him the simple accommodation he needed to do his job was illegal and cruel," said John Hendrickson, the EEOC's regional attorney in Chicago. "Our hope is that going forward AutoZone will meet its obligations to all of its employees under federal law -- hardworking Americans deserve no less."
EEOC General Counsel David Lopez said, "After two trials and two appeals, the very successful resolution of this case is a testament to the hard work and persistence of our attorneys in both the Appellate Services unit and the Chicago District Office."
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 district court litigation was supervised by EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney Gregory Gochanour. At trial, the EEOC was represented by Trial Attorneys Justin Mulaire and Aaron DeCamp.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the Commission is available on its website at www.eeoc.gov.