Marlo Spaeth, a Wisconsin woman with Down Syndrome who worked at Walmart for sixteen years, won a lawsuit against the company after a court found that they fired her over her disability. The jury has decided that the mega retail corporation should pay her $125 million dollars.
Spaeth had worked at the Walmart in Manitowoc, Wisconsin since 1999 until she was fired in 2015 for what the company claimed was “routine absenteeism,” a term for when an employee regularly misses or arrives late for their shifts. In reality, Spaeth’s situation was much more complex than merely not showing up for work.
The store had shifted its employee scheduling to an online system in response to the amount of customers who were visiting the location at peak times. The new system resulted in Spaeth’s hours being changed from noon to four thirty in the afternoon to one to five thirty in the afternoon.
Spaeth, who has Down Syndrome, follows a strict regimen in all aspects of her life, and finds that this allows her to be at her best. The idea of a change in her routine caused her anxiety and even illness, according to her sister and guardian Amy Jo Stevenson, who attempted to file a request with Walmart to keep Spaeth’s original hours: “She’s afraid she’s going to miss dinner. It’s upsetting to her. She gets too hot. She says she feels sick, and she can’t accommodate it, so we need it switched back for her.”
Walmart refused Spaeth’s request. When Spaeth continued to work her original hours instead of the new ones assigned to her, the store took disciplinary action against her, and eventually fired her on July 10, 2015.
Spaeth and her mother and sister attempted to have her rehired by Walmart after noting in the Termination Letter that there was a possibility that she could be rehired, but the store refused.
A jury found that Walmart discriminated against Spaeth
A jury in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, in Green Bay found that Walmart had discriminated against Spaeth for having a disability. They determined that the company had violated the Americans With Disabilities Act, which protects employees from being discriminated against due to their disabilities. The jury decided that Walmart should pay $125 million in punitive damages and $150,000 in compensatory damages.
Punitive damages are meant to punish a defendant for outrageous conduct and are not calculated in proportion to the cost of a plaintiff’s injuries. Rather they are meant to deter one from acting in a similar way in the future and are thus decided in relationship to the defendant’s value so as to produce a fine that significantly impacts the defendant and incentives them not to repeat their behavior.