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Jury Finds Pizza Chain Violated the ADA for Firing a Mentally Retarded Employee

  • June 15, 2000

A federal court in Wisconsin has rejected efforts by a nationwide restaurant chain to overturn a jury verdict that found the company liable under the Americans with Disabilities Act for firing a mentally retarded janitor. The jury originally awarded the disabled employee $13 million in punitive damages. In its decision, the court reduced that amount as required by the ADA, but imposed the maximum allowed under federal law. In so doing, the court stated that "the breathtaking magnitude of an eight-figure punitive damages award demonstrates that the jury wanted to send [the employer] a loud, clear message." The lawsuit, brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claimed that the restaurant violated the ADA when a district manager fired the disabled worker because the district manager did not want "those people" working in the restaurant. The firing took place despite the vigorous protests of the restaurant's manager, who was also the employee's immediate supervisor.

In reaching its decision, the federal court found that the evidence supported the jury's finding that the employee, who is mentally retarded, autistic and non-verbal, was qualified for his job cleaning the restaurant with the assistance of a job coach, and that his performance had been satisfactory. The court noted the testimony of the employee's supervisor that, after she was criticized by the regional manager for hiring one of "those people," she unsuccessfully sought help from the corporate human resources department.

The federal court judge also upheld the jury's award of $70,000 for emotional distress damages, rejecting the restaurant's argument that since he was not able to testify himself, the employee should not receive such damages. However, the testimony of the employee's foster mother that he "literally jumped for joy and hit his head on the ceiling when he first told her family about his job at [the restaurant]" supported the jury's award.

The $13 million punitive damages award was reduced by the court to $230,000 which, when added to the compensatory damages of $70,000, is the maximum of $300,000 permitted by the ADA. The court also ordered the restaurant chain to reinstate the employee to his former position and provide training to its managers about the requirements of the ADA. [EEOC v. CEC Entertainment, Inc., dba Chuck E. Cheese Pizza, No. 98-C-698-X (WD Wis, 2000).

Editor's Note:

Employer groups have criticized the use of the ADA to shield from adverse employment actions individuals whose status as disabled is an issue. Far fewer cases have involved the rights of individuals who are undoubtedly disabled but otherwise arguably qualified for employment. In this case, the plaintiff's status as disabled was clear, and it was the alleged stereotypical reaction of an uneducated manager that resulted in the company's liability. Indeed, the court ordered the company, as part of the remedy, to provide management training on the requirements of the ADA. Following the lead of the U. S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1998 and 1999 decisions involving sex discrimination and sexual harassment, the lower courts are now more likely to incorporate mandatory training into the remedies they craft for unlawful discrimination in the workplace.

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