Federal Court Awards $56,500 to Employee Terminated for Bipolar Disorder
SEATTLE – Today 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.”
Reilly continued, “This case was never about money or any sort of payback -- it was always about doing the right thing to help protect the rights of people with disabilities. I hope this verdict enables other people with bipolar disorder to have an equal chance at obtaining and maintaining successful and fulfilling careers and to prevent future discrimination. It makes me very happy and proud to know that justice prevailed in this case.”
William Tamayo, the EEOC’s regional attorney in San Francisco, said, “The court sent an important message today that employers can’t substitute fiction for facts when making employment decisions about disabled workers. Employers acting on outdated myths and fears about disabilities need to know that the EEOC will not shy away from taking ADA cases to trial to bring them into the 21st century.”
Tamayo recognized EEOC Supervisory Trial Attorney John Stanley for overseeing the litigation, Senior Trial Attorneys Damien Lee and Jamal Whitehead for representing the EEOC at trial, and Investigator Annalie Greer for investigating the case allegations.
Reilly’s private counsel Keller Allen added, "The court saw through the multiple and changing excuses offered by Cottonwood for firing Sean Reilly. This is a well-deserved victory for a hard-working individual who refused to allow his disability to be used to set a limit on his achievements.”
According to its website, www.cashstore.com, Cottonwood Financial owns and operates payday lending stores in over a half-dozen states and maintains over 500 employees.
The EEOC enforces federal laws prohibiting employment discrimination. Further information about the EEOC is available on its web site at www.eeoc.gov.