Nursing a cold recently, I was trying various OTC remedies with varying results. But I was reading the advance sheets, and an interesting, multi-layered case that caught my attention was an effective tonic. It is Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. AutoZone, Inc., decided by the 7th Circuit on Feb. 15, 2013. It's rich, like chocolate cake, but here are the key facts and issues from the opinion:
Employee works as a manager. He suffered, even before being employed by AutoZone, from a serious and chronic back condition. Part of his job includes mopping the floor. At trial, there was differening testimony on whether he was or was not excused from this task. But it was undisputed that the employee had contacted a number of AutoZone officials about being relieved of the duty as a reasonable accommodation to his back issues. Well, on Sept. 12, 2003, he injured his back while mopping; the company then sent, for the first time, a memo to the employee's manager relieving him of this duty; but it was too little, too late, with the employee never being able to return to work, being placed on involuntary leave until February 2005 when the company fired him. A jury found against AutoZone, and the magistrate judge entered a judgment in favor of the employee for $100,000 in compensatory damages, $200,000 in punitive damages (reduced from the $500,000 found by the jury) and $115,000 in back pay. The appeals court affirmed (except on part of the injunctive relief issue). Why did it affirm on punitive damages?
Here is one reason, to quote the court:
"[AutoZone's lead disability coordinator] testified that she knew [the employee] and remembered her conversations with him. Her testimony suggested that she was dismissive of [his] requests for an accommodation, and indicated that other AutoZone employees were frustrated with [the employee] because he 'had a penchant for corresponding to various people within the AutoZone corporation and at various departments.' "
The bottom line, to quote the court: "[the employee] had contacted [the coordinator] so often that she expressed frustration with his persistence." And the cherries on top of this punitive damages sundae: the employee was physically hurt, not just economically; he testified that he continued to mop the floor because he could not afford to lose his job; and AutoZone's dismissiveness of his health concerns occurred on multiple occasions and was not an isolated incident.
There are lots of other interesting issues and I commend them for your reading. But I want to leave the reader with this thought: Sometimes managers find an employee to be irritating. "Here is Joe, once again making a complaint. Isn't he ever happy?" And often Joe is an unlikeable person and the natural human tendency is to be nice to those we like and ignore those we don't. But these all too human feelings must be set aside in administering what the law requires.