Fifth Circuit Upholds Million Dollar ADA Verdict

The EEOC has won a big appeal in EEOC v. Du Pont E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, No. 05-30712 (5th Cir. Mar. 1, 2007). In upholding a million-dollar plus verdict for the plaintiff, the Fifth Circuit addresed a number of important issues. The EEOC sued on behalf of Du Pont employee Laura Barrios who, in 1986, was diagnosed with a number of medical conditions that made it increasingly difficult for her to walk. Barrios's position required her to obtain annual physical examinations by DuPont plant physicians. In 1996, the company physicians restricted Barrios from standing for more than ten minutes, walking more than one hundred feet without resting, working in a stooped position, or working more than eight hours. The company's physicians later concluded that she should be medically restricted from walking anywhere at the plant due to concerns that she would not be able to evacuate in an emergency. She was therefore discharged on permanent disability. The EEOC sued and won a partial summary judgment on the "regarded as" issue and the rest of the case went to the jury. The jury awarded (on an advisory basis) $91,000 in back pay and $200,000 in front pay, plus (as legal relief) $1,000,000 in punitive damages (capped by the district court at $300,000). The Fifth Circuit upheld all but the award of front pay. Importantly, the Court upheld a million dollar punitive award despite the fact that no compensatory damages were awarded. This is the first time I have noted the Fifth Circuit explicitly hold that punitives may be recovered in such circumstances. The facts of the case appeared to have helped:
DuPont was aware of its responsibilities under the ADA. Yet, viewed in the light most favorable to the verdict, DuPont made Barrios's job more difficult. The company placed Barrios's printer over one hundred feet from her desk in spite of her walking difficulties, whereas other lab clerks' printers were adjacent to their desks. DuPont refused to allow Barrios to demonstrate her ability to evacuate before she was terminated -- for inability to evacuate. The company spent years trying to convince Barrios to retire on disability. But the crowning evidentiary blow against DuPont is that after Barrios attempted to get her job back, a DuPont supervisor stated that he no longer wanted to see her "crippled crooked self, going down the hall hugging the walls." The supervisor's denial of this remark under oath, like DuPont's rejoinder to other negative evidence, was subject to the jury's credibility assessment. The jury likewise could have rejected DuPont's good-faith defense based on the conclusory assertions by two DuPont employees that they comply with the law.

The Court also reaffirmed that "appellate review of the jury's determination of the essential functions of Barrios's job is highly deferential."