FedEx and EEOC’s Battle to Define an Employer’s Responsibilities under the ADA

In 2001, a FedEx Corporation employee filed a complaint against his employer with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or the EEOC.

This began a long-term legal battle between FedEx and the EEOC that extended through two major lawsuits.

This post addresses the first lawsuit.

Picture shows a screen shot of someone using sign language in an ASL video on the EEOC website.Click to learn more about the second lawsuit in ASL here.

Employers can learn much from the story of how the situation escalated, and how higher courts determined employer responsibility.

The employee had minimal work-related accommodations needs, but several factors contributed to a situation where courts determined that FedEx had to pay $8,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages. The maximum penalty was $300,000.

If FedEx had avoided this scenario with best practices, the company could have saved $108,000 for damages, additional lawyer fees, and seven years in courts.

Shows picture of a judge's gavel on top of a file folder with many papers.
Litigation is an expensive and time-consuming way of resolving employee conflicts that can be addressed more effectively internally. photo credit: weiss_paarz_photos Gavel – Courtroom and Gavel via photopin (license)

Worse, the lawsuit raised awareness with their employees, which potentially led to a second, larger lawsuit years later.

Perhaps FedEx was lucky. The information they didn’t provide their employee could have killed him.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Plaintiff-Appellee v. Federal Express Corporation, d/b/a FedEX Express, Defendant-Appellant, decided January 2008.

Background

The first lawsuit was brought by the EEOC after Ronald Lockhart of College Park, Md. filed a complaint.

Lockhart was a full-time college student and part-time package handler at FedEx between 2000-2003. He worked at FedEx’s Baltimore-Washington International Airport facility during the night shift.

Picture shows two FedEx planes on an airport runway.
FedEx is one of several of the nation’s mail carriers. photo credit: fordsbasement Federal Express Planes at LAX via photopin (license)

According to court documents, Lockhart had been “profoundly deaf since his birth in 1959. He is unable to either speak or read lips, but is fluent in American Sign Language (“ASL”), which is his primary language.”

While Lockhart didn’t need accommodations for package handling, he needed them for meetings.

“Lockhart made repeated requests for an ASL interpreter and other accommodations, so that he could understand what occurred at employee meetings and training sessions,” according to court documents.

Title I of the ADA

According to court documents, “Title I of the ADA prohibits discriminatory acts and omissions that abrogate the employment rights of disabled people, including the failure of an employer to make reasonable accommodations for an applicant or an employee’s disability. (defining ‘discriminate’ as, inter alia, the failure to make ‘reasonable accommodations to the known physical or mental limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability who is an applicant or employee, unless [the employer] can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the operation of the business of [the employer]’).”

Closed doors to communication access

Lockhart’s direct supervisors made efforts to acquire accommodations, but ultimately didn’t provide them.

Problems for Lockhart began at the door. A FedEx supervisor denied Lockhart an interpreter for his job interview, and according to court documents, Lockhart had to bring a friend to interpret for him.

Lockhart supplied his own interpreter because he “really wanted the job,” and because he “felt as if [he] had no other choice.”

When the Senior Operations Manager for FedEx at the BWI Ramp, Pat Hanratty, learned that one of his managers had hired someone requiring an interpreter, he “ask[ed Thompson, Lockhart’s initial direct supervisor] why” he had done so.

As Senior Operations Manager, Hanratty was responsible for ensuring that personnel matters at the FedEx-BWI Ramp were ADA compliant.

Hanratty was fluent in ADA matters. He:

  • knew FedEx’s ADA compliance policy,
  • had received ADA training from FedEx, and
  • was familiar with the ADA’s requirement that employers make reasonable accommodations for their disabled employees.

Failure to implement ADA policy

According to court documents, Hanratty failed to ensure that:

  • FedEx’s ADA compliance policy was implemented, and
  • Lockhart’s supervisor received ADA training from FedEx, even though he’d requested it.

Since Lockhart’s supervisor didn’t understand how to accommodate someone with deafness, when Lockhart requested accommodations, he didn’t receive them.

Lockhart had requested:

  • complete notes from the daily briefings, and
  • ASL translation and closed-captioning assistance at monthly meetings.

What Lockhart received:

  • no ASL interpretation or closed-captioning for two years,
  • no information about meeting times and dates,
  • some closed-captioned videos, and
  • no ASL translations of live presentations.

    Captions on bottom of TV screen showing news about Oprah and Australia.
    Watching TV without sound or captions is a quick way to teach why captions are important to those with hearing loss or deafness. photo credit: NICOLE CHETTLE via photopin (license)

Attempting accommodations

Victor Cofield, a FedEx-BWI Ramp Operations Manager, was Lockhart’s direct supervisor for most of the period addressed in the lawsuit.

Cofield made efforts to locate accommodations, such as:

  • asking Hanratty for ADA training,
  • requesting more information from other senior personnel,
  • communicating with Lockhart via note writing, and
  • partially attempting to locate a qualified interpreter.

The provided accommodations didn’t respect Lockhart’s abilities, and though Cofield tried to assist Lockhart, he failed on the follow-through.

Picture of a wastebasket with balls of paper trash inside.
If Lockhart didn’t bring his own notebook, his supervisor would sometimes get paper from the trash to write notes on with Lockhart. photo credit: Jeff Hester 101/365 Trashed via photopin (license)

For example, Lockhart took a notepad to communicate with his supervisor, Cofield, but if he forgot to bring one, Cofield said, “We would find a piece of paper somewhere, … out of a trash can, off the floor or something, and write [notes].”

Pulling paper out of the trash to communicate with someone sends the wrong message.

Sometimes, Cofield used an uncertified interpreter that was another FedEx employee to interpret.

Picture of man with hands in the air out to the side, as if gesturing, I don't know.
What Lockhart’s supervisor failed to understand was that an ASL student may not be qualified to interpret, especially if they know little more than the alphabet. photo credit: danielfoster437 Disagreement via photopin (license)

“Lockhart had difficulty comprehending this employee’s ASL translations because, although the employee could use the ASL alphabet to spell English words,” according to court documents, “he was not fluent in the ASL language.”

Picture of the Twin Towers skyscrapers smoking on 9/11.
When the surprise attacks of 9/11 occurred, Lockhart was concerned about safety, as many Americans were. photo credit: RTreadway 37136665303 via photopin (license)

Post-9/11 Training Exclusion

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when several planes were targeted to crash into strategic sites, including one that had been headed toward nearby Washington, D.C., security measures increased nationwide.

A week later, according to Wikipedia, “Letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to several news media offices and two Democratic U.S. Senators, killing five people and infecting 17 others.”

FedEx managers at BWI held security issues meetings, covering subjects such as potential anthrax exposure.

Lockhart didn’t have an ASL interpreter or meeting notes, and couldn’t therefore effectively participate in the security meetings.

Two people's hands over a graph and a notebook, taking notes.
What would a meeting be like with charts and outlines and no explanations? Since Lockhart couldn’t hear any of the meeting content, he could only rely upon what he saw–if and when he was informed there was a meeting. photo credit: iComputer Denver Business Computer and IT Support via photopin (license)
Stack of manila envelopes.
Since Lockhart didn’t have accessible training, after 9/11, we had no way to know precautions to take to avoid anthrax exposure. photo credit: bourgeoisbee 11/15/07 via photopin (license)

“[M]y co-workers started to feel very concerned for me,” Lockhart testified, “because there was so much information that I wasn’t getting, and they were concerned for my safety.”

Lack of awareness about deafness

FedEx also had company training and according to court documents, Lockhart completed 24 FedEx training courses — “including courses on how to avoid workplace violence, how to recognize and interpret hazard labels on packages, and how to safely handle dangerous materials.”

Company records showed Lockhart performed satisfactorily for all the training sessions.

For computerized summative tests, “FedEx would direct a ‘team leader’ to sit with Lockhart at his computer and answer test questions for him if he made incorrect answers.”

“As Lockhart recalled, ‘the team leader would … move[] me out of the way and start[] taking the test for me.'”

Picture of part of a computer monitor and a keyboard.
Sometimes other FedEx personnel would take required tests for Lockhart rather than provide him an interpreter so he could take tests for himself.

Had Lockhart received an interpreter while taking tests, he could have clarified the language and taken the test for himself.

Lockhart was also fired by FedEx, while the case was still in courts.

Despite a clear failure to provide effective communication to Lockhart, FedEx fought the EEOC in courts.

What the court instructed the jury: accommodations

About an employee requesting accommodations, the jury was instructed that:

although a disabled employee possesses a general responsibility to inform his employer that such accommodations are necessary, “the need for a request may be excused altogether when a known disability interferes with an employee’s ability to make a request.” If that happens, “the employer must make a reasonable effort to understand what [the] needs are.”

What the court instructed the jury: awarding punitive damages

For awarding punitive damages, the jury was told those could be awarded if the jury found for the EEOC, and established from a “preponderance of evidence” that:

  1. “A higher management official of FedEx personally acted with malice or reckless indifference to Mr. Lockhart’s federally-protected rights;” and,
  2. “FedEx itself had not acted in good faith in an attempt to comply with the law by adopting policies and procedures designed to prohibit such discrimination in the workplace.”

What the court instructed the jury: good faith

The court advised the jury about what is good-faith, when managerial employees’ acts “were contrary to the employer’s own good faith efforts to comply with the law by implementing policies and programs designed to prevent such unlawful discrimination in the workplace.”

Cartoon of a jury from Revolutionary period.
Would a jury find that your company is making effort to abide by the ADA with its policies and oversight? photo credit: The British Library Image taken from page 102 of ‘Humorous Poems … With a preface by A. Ainger, and … illustrations by C. E. Brock. L.P’ via photopin (license)

What the court instructed the jury: bad faith

As far as determining bad faith, the jury was instructed that a “party that … delays the interactive process is not acting in good faith,” and that a “party who fails to communicate, by way of initiation or response, may also be acting in bad faith.”

Black and white photo shows an old looking sign that says, The deadline for complaints was yesterday.
Part of a healthy business communication system is having clear procedures for addressing employee grievances, not just receiving them. photo credit: blondinrikard Sign of the day via photopin (license)

Reckless Indifference to support punitive damages

To gain punitive damages, the EEOC “relied on a theory of reckless indifference to prove its claim.”

Read sign with white letters reads, It is far better to follow well than to lead indifferently.
Knowing the law and not taking action presents problems, particularly with business leadership. Management is held to higher standard because they have the authority and power to initiate action. photo credit: Brett Jordan Support Line (1 of 2) via photopin (license)

To justify punitive damages based on reckless indifference, sufficient evidence for the jury must be provided in these four areas:

(1) The employer’s decision maker discriminates in the face of a perceived risk that the decision will violate federal law;
(2) The decision maker is a principal or serves the employer in a managerial capacity;
(3) The decision maker acts within the scope of his employment in making the challenged decision; and
(4) The employer fails to engage in good-faith efforts to comply with the law.

An Employee Manual and Grievance Procedures Aren’t Enough

According to court documents, “FedEx contends that adoption of its ADA compliance policy, as set forth in the People Manual (providing that reasonable accommodations should be made for disabled employees), in conjunction with its internal grievance policy for handling employee complaints, established that it had acted in good faith to comply with the ADA.”

Picture of a meeting taking place. Topic isn't visible.
Company training minimizes risks. It’s an essential part of a businesses’ insurance policy against lawsuits. photo credit: OREALC/UNESCO Santiago Reunión Sub regional “Estrategias para la inclusión de la Gestión de Riesgos de Desastres en el sector Educativo” via photopin (license)

The court ruled, “Unfortunately for FedEx, the mere existence of an ADA compliance policy will not alone insulate an employer from punitive damages liability. Rather, in order to avoid liability for the discriminatory acts of one of its management officials, an employer maintaining such a compliance policy must also take affirmative steps to ensure its implementation.”

Fighting the $100,000 in punitive damages

FedEx opposed the punitive damage of $100,000, based on the acts not passing a reprehensibility test, according to court documents:

  • 1) whether the harm done was physical as opposed to economic;
  • (2) whether the conduct involved indifference to the health or safety of others;
  • (3) whether the victim was financially vulnerable;
  • (4) whether the conduct involved repeated actions or was isolated; and
  • (5) whether the harm suffered by the plaintiff resulted from conduct that was known or suspected to be unlawful.

The court determined that Lockhart’s supervisors “were familiar with the mandate of the ADA and perceived the risk that their conduct was unlawful,” and that Lockhart “missed updates about important subjects,” including handling dangerous materials and anthrax.

This justified the damages awarded to Lockhart.

FedEx’s request for a hearing at the Supreme Court

The Southeast ADA Center reported, “Federal Express filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the United States Supreme Court on April 22, 2008 to determine whether the Fourth Circuit used an improper standard in allowing an award of punitive damages. On October 6, 2008, the Supreme Court denied the petition for review by Federal Express Corporation. Therefore, the punitive damages award of $100,000, upheld by the Fourth Circuit’s unanimous decision, prevails.”

Lessons learned about law

Man in green shirt sits among and audience with hand to chin in deep thought.
What can we do to avoid lawsuits and keep prevent employee grievances, or if they occur, handle them internally? photo credit: Biocat, BioRegió de Catalunya Lessons Learned_21.05.10 via photopin (license)

“This verdict sends victims and their employers a big message,” said EEOC Regional Attorney Jacqueline McNair, according to an EEOC newsroom release. “Employers must provide reasonable accommodations for qualified individuals with disabilities. It is the employer’s responsibility to demonstrate that it is committed to fully adhere to the requirements of the ADA on behalf of disabled employees, and that they are not to be treated like second-class citizens.”

Lessons learned about policies and procedures

FedEx had a partial defense of following the ADA:

  • an ADA compliance policy, and,
  • an internal grievance policy for handling employee complaints.
Chart that shows a flow of management policies, including compliance.
Compliance with company policy is essential, and planning and training raise awareness about these policies. photo credit: bryanmmathers (wapisasa) Workforce Pipeline driven by Open Badges via photopin (license)

Failure to comply with their own policies could be addressed by:

  • establishing regular ADA-compliance meetings for managers and supervisors,
  • disability awareness meetings for full staff, organized in cooperation with individuals who have a disability,
  • publicly and internally posting accommodations requests information,
  • publicly and internally posting grievance policies for employee complaints,
  • having a designated employee to receive grievances and address them, with their contact information affixed to publicly displayed and internally provided documents,
  • keeping grievance dialogues open until they are resolved, with a focus on learning what failed and solving that too,
  • consulting government agencies for information concerning new disabilities they wish to accommodate,
  • selecting partner providers ahead of time for Braille, sign language, live or closed captions, etc. and including partners in business-wide publications and public postings.

    Drawing of a tree with a quote next to it, Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.-Will Rogers
    A good grievance procedure can help leaders determine policy problems and training needs for management and staff. photo credit: Ken Whytock Quotation: Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that…” via photopin (license)

To create procedures and documents, companies could hire contractors to draft initial publications and posters, as well as for managerial and staff training.

Once policies and procedures are created, businesses have greater protection from their employees making uninformed mistakes of judgment, and maintenance of the policies and procedures should require limited effort.

Unfortunately, FedEx would face many more employees for their next EEOC lawsuit, which will be covered in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

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