Madison, Wis. -- A federal court here has rejected Chuck E. Cheese's' efforts to overturn a November jury verdict that found the company liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for firing a mentally retarded janitor.
The jury originally awarded $13 million in punitive damages against the national pizza chain. In the decision issued yesterday, the court reduced that amount as required by the ADA, but imposed the maximum allowed under federal law. In so doing, the court stated that "the breathtaking magnitude of an eight- figure punitive damages award demonstrates that the jury wanted to send (Chuck E. Cheese's) a loud, clear message."
The lawsuit, brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claimed that Chuck E. Cheese's violated the ADA when a district manager fired Donald Perkl, the disabled worker, because the manager did not want "those people" working in the restaurant. The firing took place despite the vigorous protests of the restaurant's manager, who was also Perkl's immediate supervisor. Last November 4, 1999, the jury, in addition to awarding $13 million in punitive damages, awarded back pay and damages for emotional distress in the amount of $70,000.
EEOC Chairwoman Ida L. Castro said, "We applaud both the jury and the court for the loud, clear, message' that discrimination against people with disabilities will not be tolerated."
In yesterday's decision, Magistrate Judge Stephen L. Crocker found that the evidence supported the jury's finding that Perkl, who is mentally retarded, autistic and non-verbal, was qualified for his job cleaning the Chuck E. Cheese's facility, with the assistance of his job coach provided by Madison Packaging & Assembly, a community vocational rehabilitation program. The court further found that his performance had been satisfactory during the three weeks prior to his termination.
The court noted the testimony of Perkl's supervisor that, after she was criticized by the regional manager for hiring one of "those people," she unsuccessfully sought help from the corporate human resources department, asking, "Can someone please help me with this situation, so we can at least give this guy a chance? We are an equal opportunity employer, are we not?"
Judge Crocker also upheld the jury's award of $70,000 for emotional distress damages, rejecting Chuck E. Cheese's' argument that Perkl should not receive such damages because he was unable to testify himself at the trial about his feelings. The court noted the testimony of Perkl's foster mother that he "literally jumped for joy and hit his head on the ceiling when he first told her family about his job at Chuck E. Cheese's." In light of this testimony, Judge Crocker approved the jury's conclusion that Perkl's distress over losing his job was greater than that suffered by the ordinary victim of a wrongful discharge.
The jury's award of $13 million in punitive damages was reduced by the court to $230,000 which, when added to the compensatory damages of $70,000, is the maximum of $300,000 permitted by the ADA. Judge Crocker held that this amount was not excessive under the facts of the case. The court also ordered that Perkl be reinstated to his former position, and that Chuck E. Cheese's provide training to its managers about the requirements of the ADA.
EEOC General Counsel C. Gregory Stewart said: "This case serves as a clear illustration of the consequences of making employment decisions based on fears and stereotypes, rather than on the qualifications of an individual to perform his job."
EEOC trial lawyers Laurie Vasichek and Barbara Henderson litigated the case for the EEOC. Monica Murphy, who represented Mr. Perkl in the case both as his attorney and guardian ad litem, is employed by the Wisconsin Coalition for Advocacy, an organization that champions the rights of the disabled.
The EEOC is the federal agency responsible for enforcing Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment against qualified individuals with disabilities in the private sector and state and local governments; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits workplace discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, or religion; the Equal Pay Act of 1963; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967; and sections of the Civil Rights Act of 1991.
More information about the EEOC can be found on its web site (www.eeoc.gov). A full copy of Judge Crocker's 72- page decision is available at http://www.wiw.uscourts.gov/pub_district/opinion-search_copy(1).htm.