Oct 14, 2008

Supreme Court Decides Not to Hear Punitive Damages ADA Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a request by global shipping giant FedEx to review a $100,000 punitive damages award against it for failing to provide a reasonable accommodation to a deaf package handler. Ronald Lockhart worked for FedEx at the company's Baltimore Ramp at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Lockhart repeatedly asked his supervisor for a sign language interpreter or written notes from daily, weekly, and monthly meetings and training sessions. Despite these repeated requests, for the first two years of his employment FedEx made no attempts to accommodate Lockhart. After Lockhart complained to the EEOC, FedEx did provide some accommodations, but sporadically. (For instance, a translator was present at some meetings but not others.)

In contesting the jury's finding of a punitive damages award, FedEx claimed that its adoption of an ADA compliance policy, as well as its internal grievance policy for handling employee complaints, established it had acted in good faith to comply with the ADA. But the court recognized, "an employer maintaining such a compliance policy must also take affirmative steps to ensure its implementation." Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Federal Express, 513 F.3d 360, 374 (4th Cir. 2008) (PDF file). There was evidence to support the jury's finding that FedEx had failed in this regard, including evidence that at least 3 higher-ups, in addition to Lockhart's supervisor, knew of his request for accommodation.

The Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case means employers who fail to provide reasonable accommodations when requested may be subject to punitive damage awards. The existence of a policy, on its own, won't be adequate evidence of an employer's good faith. Policies must be implemented if they are to offer protection.