EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc, No. 12-1017 (7th Cir. Feb. 15, 2013)

| Feb 15, 2013 | Daily Developments in EEO Law |

The Seventh Circuit substantially affirms a judgment in favor of the EEOC on a hard-fought ADA reasonable accommodations case, concerning an employee forced to work beyond his medical restrictions. The judgment included an award of $100,000 in compensatory damages, $200,000 in punitive damages, and $115,000 in back pay, plus an injunction on AutoZone’s anti-discrimination practices.

EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc, No. 12-1017 (7th Cir. Feb. 15, 2013): The employee, named Shepherd, successfully worked his way up the sales ranks in his retail store to trainer. Because of Shepherd’s pre-existing back injury, aggravated by repetitive motion, his store manager excused Shepherd from floor-mopping activities. But the district manager, when he discovered the accommodation, ordered that Shepherd be returned to that duty; he insisted on the same when Shepherd moved stores. Shepherd moved up the corporate chain trying to restore his prior accommodation, but ultimately he succumbed to disabling pain and was not permitted to return to work, ultimately terminated.

In the first round of litigation, the EEOC lost the ADA reasonable accommodation claim on summary judgment and an ADA discrimination claim at a jury trial. The Seventh Circuit reversed the summary judgment and remanded for trial. EEOC v. AutoZone, Inc., 630 F.3d 635, 644-45 (7th Cir. 2010).

At the second trial, the jury awarded back pay, plus $100,000 in compensatory and $500,000 in punitives (the latter remitted to $200,000 to bring the award within the $300,000 cap). The magistrate judge also ordered reform of the employer’s accommodation practices and enjoined future violations of the ADA. 

The Seventh Circuit substantially affirms, making the following holdings:

1. The first jury’s verdict in the discrimination case, finding that the employee was not a “qualified individual” at the time of his involuntary medical leave and termination, did not preclude the second jury from finding liability for ADA reasonable accommodation, because the two juries were considering different periods.

2. The district court did not abuse its discretion by admitting the EEOC’s expert witness, a treating physician whose opinions were formed for diagnosis rather than litigation, despite that the EEOC did not submit his written report under Fed. R. Civ. P. 26(a)(2)(B).

3. The medical evidence of the employee’s pain supported the $100,000 compensatory damage award. “. . . Shepherd experienced near-daily pain that left him incapable of performing common activities, such as putting on his clothes and taking a shower. We have recognized that cases that include even the slightest ‘physical element’ are often associated with more substantial compensatory-damages awards.”

4. The remitted punitive damage award met the ADA statutory and due-process standards. Indeed, while the company had standards for granting medical accommodations,

“the jury received evidence suggesting that this procedure was not properly followed in Shepherd’s case. Moore, AutoZone’s lead disability coordinator, testified that she knew Shepherd and remembered her conversations with him. Her testimony suggested that she was dismissive of Shepherd’s requests for an accommodation, and indicated that other AutoZone employees were frustrated with Shepherd because he ‘had a penchant for corresponding to various people within the AutoZone corporation and at various departments.'”

In particular, the panel holds that AutoZone can be held liable for coordinator Moore’s conduct as an agent; because Moore enjoyed “the authority and discretion to make decisions about employees’ accommodations, a rational jury could have concluded that Moore was acting in a managerial capacity in the scope of her employment when she authorized accommodations for AutoZone employees.”

With respect to the due-process test, the panel held that the jury could have found the employer’s behavior sufficiently reprehensible (indifference to pain, repeated and unreasoned failure to reassign the work, the employee’s economic vulnerability), the ratio of actual to punitive damages was 1:1, and Congress already determined that an award in this range were acceptable under the 1991 Title VII amendments providing for punitive damages. 

5. The panel also upholds most of the injunctive relief. Because injunctive relief was authorized on a finding of liability (42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(g)(1); 42 U.S.C. § 12117(a)), courts put the burden on the employer to prove that the discrimination is unlikely to continue. The magistrate judge ordered that AutoZone:

“(1) comply with the reasonable-accommodations requirement of the ADA for employees in the Central District of Illinois; (2) to notify the EEOC of any employee who requests an accommodation during the next three years in the Central District of Illinois; and (3) to maintain complete records of its responses to such accommodation requests.”

While injunctive relief was appropriate here, the court does remand one aspect of part (1) of the order, requiring that some temporal limit be placed on it. Such “follow-the-law” injunctions are not favored generally, and require evidence “suggest[ing] that the proven illegal conduct may be resumed.” In this case, the standard was met by proof of “AutoZone’s inaction over eight years” that “convince[d] the judge that compliance with the law will not be forthcoming without an obey-the-law injunction.” Yet without a temporal limit, the company would remain indefinitely subject to contempt remedies for violations of the ADA, without the benefit of administrative and conciliation protections.

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