A seven-person jury in Syracuse, New York returned a verdict to resolve a disability discrimination lawsuit filed by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The jury awarded $1.675 million to Shelley Valentino, a deaf individual, who unsuccessfully applied for two positions in McLane’s warehouse located in Lysander, N.Y., for which she was fully qualified. The facility employs approximately 650 people and distributes products to retail businesses throughout the Northeast.
On March 12, 2018, Valentino applied online for two open positions with Defendant: Warehouse Selector II and Warehouse Selector IV. Her application indicated two prior work experiences: working as a hostess and busser at Plainville Restaurant between August 2007 and July 2008, and as a filing and data entry clerk between January and October 2003. Her resume indicated that she received her GED in 2005, a certification in medical billing and coding in 2011, and an associate degree in health information technology in 2016. Valentino’s application nowhere indicates that she has any disability or requires any accommodation.
McLane contacted her the same day she applied for the two jobs, and left a message. She then returned McLane’s call using a Telecommunications Relay Service, which uses an operator to facilitate calls for people with hearing and speech disabilities. After being contacted via the Relay Service, McLane did not return her call and rejected her application the next day. McLane filled the positions with individuals who are not hearing impaired. The reason given in the applicant tracking system was that Valentino did not meet the company’s preferred qualifications.
McLane received a total of 208 applications for the Warehouse Selector II position and hired 15 individuals. Similarly, they received 209 applications for the Warehouse Selector IV position and hired eight individuals.
The EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York (EEOC v. McLane/Eastern, Inc. d/b/a McLane Northeast, Civil Action No. 5:20-cv-01628-BKS-ML) after first attempting to reach a pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process. The EEOC sought back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, and punitive damages for the applicant, as well as injunctive relief designed to remedy and prevent future disability discrimination in the hiring process.
In January 2023, the court heard a motion for summary judgment filed by McLane, who pointed out that courts regularly dismiss ADA disability discrimination claims where the plaintiff cannot establish that the employer had knowledge of the plaintiff’s disability, on the ground that such a plaintiff cannot establish the causation element of a prima facie case. An employer “cannot be liable under the ADA for firing an employee when it indisputably had no knowledge of the disability,” because an employer cannot take an adverse action with respect to an employee or applicant “because of a disability unless it knows of the disability.”
“[A] plaintiff alleging discrimination on account of his protected status must offer evidence that a decision-maker was personally aware of his protected status to establish a prima facie case of discrimination.” Murray v. Cerebral Palsy Ass’ns of N.Y., Inc., No. 16-cv-662, 2018 WL 264112, at *7, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 213553, at *19-20 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 2, 2018) ( other citations omitted).
McLane argued that the evidence “plainly demonstrates” that it had no knowledge of Valentino’s deafness when her applications were rejected, because (1) Defendant’s Human Resources Manager, Anne Orr – the decisionmaker -testified that she did not know Valentino is deaf until Valentino filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC in August 2018; (2) the other three members of the Human Resources Department testified that they were not aware of Valentino’s disability at the relevant time, did not speak to Valentino on the phone or recall a TRS call, and played no role in the hiring process; and (3) Valentino herself never expressly informed Defendant of her disability and does not know for sure whether the TRS operator did so.
The Court denied the motion for summary judgment, concluding that there is evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could conclude that Defendant had knowledge of Valentino’s disability at the time it decided not to interview or hire her in March 2018, based on the transcript of the March 12 Telecommunications Relay Service, that someone in McLane’s HR department received.
After a 3 ½-day trial, the jury found, following just two hours of deliberation, that McLane Northeast violated the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by first refusing to interview Valentino, once the company learned that the candidate was disabled. Then the company further violated the ADA by refusing to hire the candidate for the two entry-level warehouse jobs that she applied for, the EEOC.
The jury awarded Valentino $25,000 in back pay, $150,000 in emotional distress damages, and $1.5 million in punitive damages.
Caitlin Brown, one of the EEOC trial attorneys who litigated the case, said, “The jury clearly understood that what McLane did here was wrong ” Deaf applicants, and all applicants with disabilities, deserve a fair chance to get jobs to enable them to support themselves and their families.”