Failure to Accommodate Employee With Down Syndrome Fuels $125 Million Award Against Walmart

Author: David B. Weisenfeld, XpertHR Legal Editor

July 20, 2021

A federal jury in Wisconsin has ordered Walmart to pay $125 million to a long-time sales associate who claimed the retail giant fired her in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The sales associate, who has Down syndrome, worked for Walmart for 16 years and had reportedly always received positive job evaluations. Her condition requires her to maintain a strict schedule of daily activities. But after the company implemented a new computerized system, her work schedule changed, and she had to work later hours.

As an accommodation, Marlo Spaeth asked Walmart to restore her previous schedule and adjust the scheduled start and end times of her shift by 60 to 90 minutes. However, the company refused to do so, and Spaeth struggled with the new routine. Walmart eventually fired her for excessive absenteeism and also rejected her request to be rehired even after her mother and sister intervened to try to find a solution.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Walmart under the ADA for failing to accommodate Spaeth's disability. In a statement following the jury award, an EEOC regional attorney said, "The jury here recognized, and apparently was quite offended, that Ms. Spaeth lost her job because of needless - and unlawful - inflexibility on the part of Walmart."

The fired sales associate ultimately will receive far less than the $125 million due to the federal cap on punitive and compensatory damages of $300,000. However, Walmart may still have to pay additional money for back pay, front pay and litigation costs to be determined by the judge at a later date, according to the EEOC.

"We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year," said company spokesman Randy Hargrove in a statement. He added that the company believed it could have resolved the issue and called the EEOC's demands "unreasonable."

This marks the second large jury verdict against Walmart in Wisconsin in as many years for an alleged failure to accommodate under the ADA. In 2019, a jury awarded $5.2 million to a former company employee who is deaf and also had a developmental disability.