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Disability Attorney Says Walmart's Firing of Down Syndrome Woman Is Part of a Pattern

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  • A disability rights attorney described a pattern of Walmart refusing to accommodate employees with disabilities in a legal filing on Friday.
  • The filing is the latest development in a legal battle between Walmart and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  • A jury in federal court found that Walmart wrongfully fired Marlo Spaeth, a longtime employee with Down syndrome, in July.
  • Walmart and the EEOC are now waiting for a judge to decide whether the nation's largest private employer will face tighter supervision.

The firing of Marlo Spaeth, an employee with Down syndrome who worked at Walmart for nearly 16 years, was not a one-time incident, but rather part of the retailer's pattern, a disability rights attorney said in a court filing Friday.

In the document, attorney Monica Murphy describes how she has represented six Wisconsin residents with disabilities, over the past five years, who have faced similar discrimination at Walmart. She said Walmart refused to accommodate these workers and instead took away their hours or forced them to take unpaid leave. Murphy is an attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, a nonprofit group with a mission of protecting the rights of people with disabilities. 

Several other court filings on Friday told the stories of other Walmart employees with disabilities who were fired from their jobs. They included lawsuits filed by the workers' families and a jury verdict in another discrimination lawsuit that awarded more than $5 million in damages to a former Walmart employee. The employees lived in other states, including Maine, Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The filings are the latest development in a legal battle between Walmart and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The federal agency has taken up the case of Spaeth, who worked for more than a decade folding towels, tidying aisles and helping customers as a Walmart associate at a Wisconsin Supercenter. Attorneys for the EEOC argued that Walmart wrongfully fired Spaeth rather than making reasonable accommodations for her disability.

A jury in federal court found in July that Walmart violated federal law. Jurors ordered the company to pay more than $125 million in damages — one of the highest in the federal agency's history for a single victim. The damages were reduced by the judge to $300,000, the maximum allowed under the law.

Walmart and the EEOC are now waiting for a judge to decide whether the nation's largest private employer will face tighter supervision or be forced to make changes to its corporate policies.

Walmart said it is reviewing Friday's filings. In a statement, the company's spokesman said Walmart's leaders and managers "take supporting all our associates seriously and for those with disabilities, we routinely accommodate thousands every year."

In a motion filed earlier this month, Walmart attorneys pushed back against the EEOC's calls for additional supervision. They argued that Walmart did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act and that the EEOC had no evidence that the company would violate it in the future.

The ADA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers and customers.

Murphy describes in her filing several other cases that closely resemble Spaeth's case. Like Spaeth, she said the employees had worked for Walmart for years. When Walmart began using a computerized scheduling system at their stores, they faced a sudden change to their work schedules and the company refused to adjust their hours.

Among them, she said she represented two employees with disabilities who worked for Walmart for 16 years. They were taken off work when they told Walmart they could not work 8-hour shifts. Murphy said they filed and settled their claims at the Wisconsin Equal Rights Division and the two employees never returned to work.

She is currently representing a Walmart employee in a pending case in Wisconsin's Equal Rights Division. The 11-year employee was fired by Walmart, after struggling to adjust to her new schedule from the computerized system. Walmart terminated her, saying she had excessive absenteeism.

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