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4th Circuit Affirms Two Employee Verdicts In ADA Cases

Published by on January 23, 2008

In two published opinions issued today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed verdicts for employees in separate cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). In the first, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict against Federal Express Corporation for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The […]

In two published opinions issued today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed verdicts for employees in separate cases brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

In the first, the Fourth Circuit affirmed a jury verdict against Federal Express Corporation for disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  The trial had taken place in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, Baltimore, in March 2006.  EEOC v. FedEx, No. 06-1724  The jury had awarded the plaintiff $8,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages for FedEx’s failure to reasonably accommodate his disability (deafness) by providing him with interpreters at meetings and training sessions.  FedEx appealed the punitive damages award, arguing that insufficient evidence existed to support the verdict and that it was constitutionally excessive.  The court rejected both arguments and affirmed.

Specifically, the court found that the EEOC presented sufficient evidence that FedEx had acted with reckless indifference to the plaintiff’s requests for accommodations.  FedEx officials were aware of the law and plaintiff’s repeated requests for accommodations but did nothing about them for years.  The court also found that the mere existence of an ADA policy did not insulate the company from liability for punitive damages where there was insufficient evidence that the company had taken affirmative steps to ensure its implementation with respect to the plaintiff.

The case is a good primer on both how not to handle a disabled employee and on the current state of the law regarding punitive damages in employment cases in the Fourth Circuit.

In the second case, the court affirmed a verdict in favor of an employee after a bench trial on his claim that he was terminated by his employer because it regarded him as disabled because of Parkinson’s disease.  Wilson v. Phoenix, No. 06-1818  The district court had concluded that the reasons given by the employer for the plaintiff’s termination were a pretext for discrimination.  The district court awarded the plaintiff $177,000 in back pay, $10,000 in compensatory damages, and $10,000 in punitive damages.

The opinion contains a good discussion on the evidence supporting the district court’s decision that the employer regarded the plaintiff as disabled under the ADA.  There is a lengthy dissent by Judge Niemeyer.  He would have reversed the district court on the ground that the employer did not regard the plaintiff as “disabled” but merely limited in his job performance.  Perhaps the case will end up before the entire court.

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