Although there are serious consequences when supervisors don’t know how to comply with workplace anti-discrimination rules, their ignorance of the law won’t necessarily result in a costly punitive-damages award if you get sued.
As the following ADA case shows, job applicants can’t automatically count on cashing huge punitive-damages award checks—even if a hiring manager fails to follow the letter of the law. They have to show that the manager acted with malice or reckless indifference to a federal right—not just out of ignorance.
Recent case: Carmen Sullivan applied for a job at a Subway fast-food franchise in Charlotte. She got an interview and informed the interviewer that she had lupus and might miss work during outbreaks.
Apparently the general manager assumed that people with the condition couldn’t work in a restaurant. According to several witnesses, the general manager refused to hire Sullivan because Sullivan “might have an episode and hurt herself or someone else,” perhaps confusing lupus with diabetes or epilepsy.
Sullivan contacted the EEOC, which sued on her behalf. The agency claimed Sullivan should be entitled to punitive damages on top of any other damages she might persuade a jury to award for disability discrimination.
The franchise owners asked the court to dismiss the punitive-damages request. They argued that the manager, at most, didn’t understand the ADA and its requirements, but that she wasn’t malicious or recklessly indifferent to Sullivan’s plight.
The court agreed with the franchise owners. The EEOC can go forward with the failure-to-hire-based-on-disability claim, but cannot ask for punitive damages. (EEOC v. Maha Pradbhu Inc., No. 3:07-111, WD NC, 2008)
Final note: You should train all your managers and supervisors on the ADA and its requirements. They should know they cannot refuse to hire an employee just because she discloses she may have a disability. That disclosure is your cue to gather more information about the alleged disability and any possible accommodations the applicant might need.
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