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Walmart is seeking a new trial in a case over the firing of a longtime employee with Down syndrome. A jury in July found Walmart wrongfully terminated the employee, Marlo Spaeth, and awarded her monetary damages.
In a court filing late Tuesday, Walmart said it did not know about the link between Spaeth’s disability and her struggles to adapt to a new work schedule, which ultimately led to her firing. Spaeth served as a store associate at a Walmart SuperCenter in Wisconsin for nearly 16 years.
The big-box retailer further claims the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which represented Spaeth in the case, did not show proof that Walmart “discriminated against her ‘with malice or with reckless indifference to [her] federally protected rights.’ ” The company is asking that the damages ordered to be paid to Spaeth be tossed and that a new trial was merited.
Walmart declined to comment beyond the filing. The EEOC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The request for a new trial extends a yearslong battle between the company and the EEOC in the disability-discrimination lawsuit. Walmart, the largest private employer in the country, lost the disability lawsuit last year against the EEOC. The federal agency took up the case on behalf of Spaeth.
A jury and judge found that Walmart violated the Americans with Disabilities Act when it fired Spaeth rather than adjusting her schedule as a “reasonable accommodation” to her disability. Her work hours were changed when the Walmart store began using a computerized-scheduling system.
Spaeth and her sister, Amy Jo Stevenson, repeatedly asked supervisors to restore her old schedule but Walmart refused, according to the lawsuit. Walmart began tallying days when Spaeth left the store early and later fired her for excessive absenteeism.
A federal jury ordered the company in July to pay more than $125 million in damages in the lawsuit — one of the highest in the federal agency’s history for a single victim. Those damages were later reduced to $300,000, the maximum allowed under federal law.
In late February, a federal judge ordered Walmart to rehire Spaeth and give her more than $50,000 in back pay.
Stevenson told CNBC last week that her sister would soon return to her job at the Walmart store. She said the pair were firming up Spaeth’s start date.
Stevenson said her sister’s decision to return after all she had been through was easy, saying she missed the customers and was eager to put on her Walmart vest again.
“She’s going to walk in there proud as a peacock,” Stevenson told CNBC last week. “That’s who she is. She is a Walmart associate. To be that again will make her whole in some sense.”
Stevenson learned of Walmart’s filing when contacted by CNBC on Wednesday morning.
“We believe the jury got it right the first time,” she said.