By Daily News Staff
MADISON - A jury has awarded $5.2 million in damages to a long-time Beloit Walmart employee who claimed he was discriminated against because of his disabilities.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said the ruling was issued in federal court in Madison on Thursday on the discrimination lawsuit filed in September of 2017.
The lawsuit claimed Walmart violated federal law when it refused to accommodate the disabilities of Paul Reina, who has a developmental disability, is deaf and visually impaired. He had worked for 16 years for the Beloit Walmart and was a cart pusher.
The lawsuit claimed, shortly after a new store manager started working at the Beloit Walmart, Reina was suspended and he was told to resubmit medical paperwork in order to keep his accommodations. Prior to the suspension, the Reina performed his job with assistance from a job coach provided by public funding.
When Reina and his legal guardian submitted new medical paperwork, requesting the continued assistance from a job coach, the store cut off communication and effectively terminated him, the EEOC charged.
After a three-and-a-half-day trial, the jury found in favor of the EEOC and awarded Reina $200,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $5 million in punitive damages.
Randy Hargrove, senior director of national media relations for Walmart, said under federal law, combined damages in a lawsuit such as this cannot exceed $300,000. Walmart believes the court erred in allowing punitive damages at all.
"We believe the compensated damages were excessive," Hargrove said. "We are weighing our post-trial options."
He said the incidents described in the lawsuit date back to 2015 and Walmart had worked to accommodate Reina's limitations for several years, but the store manager had concerns about Reina's safety.
"We are deeply sorry this matter reached this point. We don't tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year," Hargrove said.
Hargrove said Walmart tried to work with Reina to resolve his issues without going through an extended legal process, but the demands from the EEOC were excessive.
However, EEOC personnel said this case illustrated the responsibilities of employers.
"Employers have a legal obligation under federal law to work with employees who need accommodations for disabilities," said Gregory Gochanour, regional attorney for the EEOC's Chicago District.
"When companies shirk that obligation, the EEOC will fight to uphold the rights of disability discrimination victims. In this case the jury sent a strong message to Walmart and to other employers that if they fail to live up to their obligations under the law, they will be penalized."