Pioneering disabilities rights attorney explains the ideas behind the Americans with Disabilities Act
A federal jury in Tacoma found Wednesday that Walmart wrongly fired a Western Washington pharmacist whose medical conditions kept her from giving injections.
The company should pay 63-year-old Lori Jacobs roughly $1 million for its violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the jurors in U.S. District Court decided.
The verdict came amid a national uproar about the company’s recent decision to get rid of its greeter positions, which greeters with physical disabilities worried would leave them without jobs.
Jacobs worked at Walmart’s Port Angeles and Sequim stores from 2007 until 2017 when she was let go, her lawsuit says.
The company told pharmacists in 2016 they would all need to give injections, which Jacobs’ medical conditions prevented.
“Having lived with both cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis for almost my entire life, I know how hard it is for disabled employees to break through the stereotypes put in place by employers,” Jacobs told The News Tribune following the verdict. “I am grateful to the jury for recognizing the importance of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and hopefully my determination will help others avoid what I went through.”
Walmart also issued a statement Wednesday, which said that the company respects Jacobs, and had tried but not been able to reasonably accommodate her.
“Providing immunizations is an essential job function for pharmacists at Walmart and leading pharmacy chains across the country, and it’s a vital service that local communities depend on,” the statement said. “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit covering New York, Connecticut and Vermont ruled two years ago that being able to provide immunizations is a valid essential job function for pharmacists. We are looking at our options, including an appeal.”
The nine jurors returned their verdict following an eight-day trial and deliberations that started Tuesday afternoon.
The jury decided that Walmart should pay Jacobs $221,566 she lost in past wages and salaries, and $223,054 she missed in future earnings. The jury also awarded her $650,000 for emotional distress, though she won’t get that full amount, because federal law sets the cap for those damages at $300,000.
While jurors found Walmart had violated the ADA, they decided the company had not violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination.
Jacobs was represented by attorneys James Beck and Stephanie Bloomfield.
During closing arguments Tuesday morning, Beck told jurors that injections are a small fraction of the pharmacist job. He argued the company has been able to accommodate employees who have religious objections to providing certain medications.
“Clearly Ms. Jacobs was not hired to do this,” he said. “... As a result of her disability, she now finds herself out of work.”
Karen Bamberger, one of the attorneys representing Walmart, told jurors there wasn’t a viable way for the company to accommodate Jacobs’ disability.
The requirement for pharmacists to give vaccines “was important to Walmart, because it was important to Walmart’s customers,” Bamberger said.
She argued that turning away a customer if a pharmacist can’t give a vaccine could be bad for business and potentially a public health issue.
“Walmart is not going to apologize for being successful,” Bamberger told the jury.
She also said that employees had more than a year’s notice of the change and that Jacobs was not singled out.
Jacobs wasn’t betrayed by Walmart, but by her medical condition that kept her from doing the job, Bamberger said.
Beck countered that Jacobs “is a lion,” who has persevered through significant obstacles.
“We all know that this case is much bigger than this courtroom,” he said.
Walmart’s recent decision to replace its greeter position with one that requires more physical tasks was met with a powerful public response.
Some greeters with physical disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, worried they would no longer have work with the company.
Asked about that decision, Jacobs told The News Tribune, “I feel for them, very much so. It’s just not fair.”
Thousands of people signed petitions telling Walmart to keep its greeters, including a North Carolina greeter, who has been with the company for 17 years.
He and at least one other greeter, who both have cerebral palsy, have accepted jobs in self-checkout, the Associated Press reported Friday.
CEO Greg Foran has told store managers to make “every effort” to give greeters with disabilities job options, the AP reported.