'Justice was served': Family speaks after former Walmart employee is awarded damages

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV)-- A federal jury awarded damages to a former longtime employee at a Beloit Walmart after the store failed to accommodate the employee's disabilities.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Paul Reina, who has a developmental disability and is deaf and visually impaired, worked as a cart pusher at the Beloit Walmart for 16 years. The Walmart is located on the 2700 block of Milwaukee Road.

"If we were at Woodman's or going shopping or just out walking, people would go, 'Hi Mr. Walmart,'" said Reina's foster mom and guardian Roseann Slaght.

According to EEOC, a new manager started at the store in 2015 and placed Reina on paid suspension. The manager also forced him to resubmit medical paperwork in order to keep his accommodations. Prior to the suspension, Reina performed his job with the assistance from a job coach provided by public funding.

According to Randy Hargrove, senior director of national media relations for Walmart, the company accommodated his limitations for several years, but the manager had concerns about Reina's safety. Due to those concerns, the store manager asked for an official accommodations review process. Hargrove said after the process, the company determined Reina could not perform the essential parts of his job with or without reasonable accommodations. As a result, Hargrove said he no longer works at the store.

According to federal court documents, Reina was never paid beyond the first two weeks of his suspension.The EEOC states when the new paperwork was submitted, the store cut off communication and terminated his employment.

In March 2017, the EEOC issued a Letter of Discrimination to Walmart finding reasonable cause the American Disabilities Act was violated. They then communicated with Walmart to provide the opportunity to remedy the situation.

Hargrove said they believe they could have resolved the issue with Reina, however, he said the EEOC's demands were unreasonable.

A lawsuit was filed in Sept. 2017 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

After a nearly four-day trial, a federal jury in Madison on Thursday found in favor of the EEOC and awarded the employee $200,000 in compensatory damages and an additional $5 million in punitive damages.However, according to federal law, the combined amount of damages is capped at $300,000.

Hargrove released a statement on the jury's decision stating:

"We are deeply sorry this matter reached this point. We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind, and we routinely accommodate thousands of associates every year. We attempted to accommodate Mr. Reina's severe limitations for several years but ultimately that was no longer feasible. We believe we could have resolved this issue with Mr. Reina, however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable. We are disappointed in the outcome, do not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence and are weighing our post-trial options.We believe the compensatory damages were excessive and the Court erred in allowing the jury to assess punitive damages at all. Under federal law the combined amount of damages is capped at $300,000."

According to the EEOC, the $300,000 cap will be what Walmart is required to pay. They are planning to file in the next 30 days to ask for policy changes at Walmart, ask for back wages for Reina, and ask to either rehire Reina or be responsible for front-pay.

“Employers have a legal obligation under federal law to work with employees who need accommodations for disabilities,” said Gregory Gochanour, regional attorney for the EEOC’s Chicago District.“When companies shirk that obligation, the EEOC will fight to uphold the rights of disability discrimination victims. In this case the jury sent a strong message to Walmart and to other employers that if they fail to live up to their obligations under the law, they will be penalized.”

Hargrove said because Reina is unable to perform the essential parts of the job with or without accommodations, he would not be eligible for rehire.

"We routinely settle other matters with the EEOC that include a non-reapplication provision, yet the EEOC demanded that Mr. Reina be able to reapply for a job at Walmart in the future," said Hargrove. "If we did not hire him, then the EEOC could file another charge against Walmart on this same issue. We do not feel that is appropriate."

Reina now delivers newspapers twice a week. On Saturday, while helping Reina with his paper route, Slaght said she is happy about the ruling, but the money is not what matters. She hopes Reina's case can inspire others with disabilities.

"I've had that reaffirmed, that justice was served," Slaght said. "Everybody deserves a chance to have a job.Just because somebody might need an accommodation or even a person to be an accommodation, doesn't mean they can't do the job."