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A federal appeals court has upheld a $415,000 verdict against auto parts retailer AutoZone Inc. in a disability discrimination and retaliation lawsuit filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The case considered in Friday's ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. AutoZone Inc. has a long and complex history. According to the ruling, John Shepherd began working for Memphis, Tenn.-based AutoZone in 1998, but had suffered a chronic back injury while working for a different employer. Mr. Shepherd claimed that despite repeated requests for accommodation, his supervisors insisted he mop AutoZone's floors, which caused flare-ups of his injury.
After he sought to return to work following one such injury flare-up in January 2004, AutoZone would not allow him to return and kept him on involuntary medical leave until February 2005, when it terminated his employment. The EEOC filed suit on Mr. Shepherd's behalf in 2007, charging the firm with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate his disability, and with retaliation when it refused to allow him to return to work and later terminated him.
A magistrate judge granted summary judgment to AutoZone on the accommodation claim, but allowed the involuntary leave and termination claims to go to trial. A jury ruled in AutoZone's favor on those claims. The EEOC appealed the magistrate's grant of summary judgment on the accommodation claim, but not the jury's verdict.
On appeal, in 2010 the 7th Circuit reversed the magistrate judge's grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings. After a second trial, a jury awarded Mr. Shepherd $115,000 in back pay, $100,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages. The magistrate judge remitted the punitive damages to $200,000 to bring the compensatory and punitive damages within the ADA's $300,000 statutory cap. He also issued an injunction on AutoZone's antidiscrimination practices.
AutoZone appealed the ruling. The appellate court affirmed the judge's monetary award. On compensatory damages, for instance, the unanimous three-judge panel said the judge “accurately observed that the compensatory damages in this case are approximately the same value as the compensatory damages awarded in comparable cases. … In fact, Shepherd's case is more extreme than some of these cases because Shepherd experienced near-daily pain that left him incapable of performing common activities, such as putting on his clothes and taking a shower.”
The appellate court agreed to remand for further proceedings a provision in the injunction against AutoZone, stating it should be adjusted to reflect a time limit.