Employment discrimination is a real issue facing tens of thousands of Americans each year. In 2016 alone, Coloradans filed 1,994 employment discrimination complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces employment anti-discrimination laws. Fortunately, there are federal laws that prohibit discrimination in the workplace and hold offending employers accountable. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 to ensure persons with disabilities have equal opportunities in the workplace. The ADA defines “disability” as “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” Another important piece of federal legislation, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants certain employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for the following reasons:

  1. Birth and care of the newborn child of an employee;
  2. Placement with the employee of a child for adoption or foster care;
  3. Care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition;
  4. Medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition.

During FMLA leave, the employer must continue the employee’s group health insurance. Importantly the FMLA only applies to employees of public agencies (including public schools) and companies with 50 employees or more. Companies that violate the ADA or FMLA may be subject to multi-million-dollar lawsuits.

Hayes v. Skywest Airlines

Just last week, a federal jury in Denver awarded $2.45 million to a former employee of SkyWest Airlines for violating the ADA and FMLA. John Hayes worked as a trainer for SkyWest at Denver International Airport from 2006 to 2014. Prior to his health issues, he had an excellent work record and was by all accounts a great employee.

In 2013, John was diagnosed with kidney disease. He had to start receiving regular dialysis treatment, for which he used his FMLA leave. In August 2014, John’s doctor cleared him to return to work. His only restriction prohibited him from lifting anything over 30 pounds. Since he was a supervisor and never lifted things in the past, the accommodation should not have been an issue. Initially, SkyWest approved the restriction and John resumed his position as a trainer. Within a week, however, Skywest informed him that it would not honor his accommodation. Skywest barred him from returning to work unless he could lift over 30 pounds. John requested Skywest transfer him to a different position. Skywest refused. John then applied for six other positions within the company, but wasn’t offered any, thereby ending his employment with SkyWest.

The ADA and FMLA Lawsuit

John initially filed an internal complaint with SkyWest for discrimination and then with the EEOC. He then filed a lawsuit against his former employer, alleging violations of the ADA and FMLA. SkyWest sought to explain John’s dismissal with seemingly contradictory arguments. First, they asserted that he was part of a mass layoff in 2014 involving over 600 employees. But Skywest had offered those employees out-of-state transfers or year-long furloughs. Skywest also argued that John’s termination was necessary because he suffered a “medical incident” while at work. The incident in question was a bout of dizziness that John experienced shortly after returning to work in August 2014. John’s doctor confirmed that occasional dizziness was a common issue for dialysis patients and would not impact his ability to fulfill his job duties.

The Outcome

The jury did not find SkyWest’s arguments convincing. It awarded John a judgment consisting of $450,000.00 in actual damages, plus $2 million in punitive damages. Skywest’s apparent financial incentive to get rid of John Hayes was likely a factor contributing to the verdict. Skywest self-funds its health insurance. It would save a lot of money if it fired John, rather than insuring him.

If you or someone you know has been the subject of employment discrimination, consider contacting a qualified plaintiff attorney to review your case. These situations can be complex and difficult to prove. Having an experienced civil litigator on your side can make all the difference.