After a Six-Year Legal Battle, Walmart must pay $125 Million in Damages to Woman Fired with Down Syndrome

Shoppers walk in front of a Walmart store in San Leandro, California, U.S., on Thursday, May 13, 2021. Photo Source: Shoppers walk in front of a Walmart store in San Leandro, California, U.S., file photo, May 13, 2021. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images via CNBC)

Marlo Spaeth, who has Down Syndrome and was fired from Walmart, handily won a drawn-out legal battle against the giant retailer. Spaeth’s sister, Amy Jo Stevenson, worked with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in their lawsuit against Walmart. Walmart, the largest private employer in the US, has over 2.2 million workers globally. The gigantic company had revenues of almost $560 billion in 2020 alone.

Last week, after fighting in court for over six years, a jury found Walmart guilty of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The company will now pay Spaeth damages of more than $125 million.

Spaeth, 55, worked for Walmart for more than sixteen years, and court papers state she adored her job. But in 2015 she was abruptly fired, and Spaeth, according to her sister and legal guardian, “retreated into a shell” and became severely depressed.

In an interview with CNN, Stevenson said her sister was traumatized by the firing.

“It was nothing short of traumatic,” Stevenson said. “It was hard, very difficult to watch.”

The historic $125 million jury award is one of the highest ever in the EEOC’s history for a single victim. Employment law attorney Richard Koss explains what it takes to prove a case under the ADA. “The plaintiff must be an employee with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity, and who can perform the essential functions of the job with or without reasonable accommodations. The plaintiff must then prove he or she was unlawfully discriminated against because of the disability.” Every part of the above definition contains legal terms that parties and the courts must wrestle with.

Plaintiffs can also suffer discrimination under the ADA if they are “regarded as” having a disability or have a record of disability, even if they are not currently disabled.

As a result of the verdict, Walmart may be ordered to change its employment policies and pay more to Spaeth including lost wages and interest.

The Green Bay, Wisconsin, jury came to its decision in about three hours, agreeing that Walmart violated federal law when it fired Spaeth. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all US employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities. As attorney Koss explains, an employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee unless the employer can prove the accommodation poses a “direct threat” of injury to the employee or another worker or would place an “undue hardship” on the employer. “Unless one of those limitations apply,” says Koss, “the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee where necessary.” However, Koss cautions that the employee does not always get to decide which accommodation will be provide. “If multiple reasonable accommodations exist, the employer can choose which one or ones to provide,” he says.

The employer must provide a reasonable accommodation to a qualified employee where necessary. . .If multiple reasonable accommodations exist, the employer can choose which one or ones to provide.
— Richard Koss, Employment Attorney

The employer is required to engage in an interactive process with the employee to come up with a reasonable accommodation that works for both parties.

The jurors found Walmart discriminated against Spaeth, in part, by refusing to accommodate her Down Syndrome disability by not adjusting her new work hours, despite her successful, lengthy track record at the store.

Spaeth’s Walmart shift was the same for fourteen years on the job, from noon to 4 p.m. In November 2014, Walmart changed Spaeth’s work shift from 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., according to court papers. Spaeth became anxious and upset by the disruptive schedule change, which is a common condition associated with Down Syndrome.

Despite both Spaeth and her sister asking management to change her work shift schedule back due to the trauma Spaeth was enduring, they refused.

The problems over the schedule change eventually led to Spaeth getting fired. After numerous rejections to rehire her, Stevenson filed a complaint with the US Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission.

Marlo Spaeth (left) was fired from Walmart in July 2015, after working there for nearly 16 years. Photo Source: Marlo Spaeth (left) was fired from Walmart in July 2015, after working there for nearly 16 years. (Amy Jo Stevenson/CNBC) Attorneys for the EEOC said in court papers that under the ADA, if Walmart changed Spaeth’s work shift back to her previous one, this would be a reasonable accommodation for her disability, and this change “would not pose a burden on Walmart” or the store where she worked. The store, with over 300 employees, is open 24/7.

The plaintiff’s attorneys also said in court papers that numerous other Walmart employees were willing to help out and take part of Spaeth’s new work shift so that she could be rehired.

Walmart refused to make the accommodations for Spaeth, saying she was “unreliable.”

Walmart’s spokesman Randy Hargrove issued a statement, saying, “We take supporting all our associates seriously and for those with disabilities, we routinely accommodate thousands every year. We tried for more than a year to resolve this matter with the EEOC to avoid litigation, however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable.”

Stevenson, inspired by her sister’s successful lawsuit, said she wants every Walmart store to pay homage to their employees and protect every staff member with a disability.

In an interview, Stevenson said, “I envision a Marlo Spaeth memo hanging in every Walmart that says, ‘You can’t do this.’”

During the years-long epic legal battle, Walmart attorney’s made Spaeth endure many hours of psychological examinations. Her sister said this left Spaeth emotionally exhausted, crying in a parking lot inside their car.

“The substantial jury verdict in this case sends a strong message to employers that disability discrimination is unacceptable in our nation’s workplaces,” said EEOC Chair Charlotte A. Burrows. “All of those who come forward to ensure the right to a workplace free of discrimination do a service to our nation. Thank you to them and to my colleagues at the EEOC whose excellent work investigating and litigating the case made this important verdict possible.”

Walmart has not announced if it will appeal this decision.

Diane Lilli
Diane Lilli
Diane Lilli is an award winning Journalist, Editor and Author for over 18 years for New Jersey news outlets (print and online) including launching the first daily digital newspaper in 2005, Jersey Tomato Press. She has been published in numerous newspapers; journals; magazines and literary publications nationally and is the winner of the Shirley Chisholm Journalism Award.