Jottings By An Employer's Lawyer

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

"Just Make It Go Away" - Now $8 Million Later

It is probably going to be around awhile. It -- is a lawsuit brought by an applicant for a customer service position at an EchoStar call center. Dale Alton, who is blind, was denied the job because he was "too slow" on a Braille test, although according to the Rocky Mountain News story, he would not have used Braille in the position he was applying for. The "make it go away" quote was attributed to the EchoStar H.R. Vice President after Alton returned to apply a second time.

The jury awarded $8 million in punitive damages (only $2,500 in actual damages), but it could have been worse. According to the story, the jury foreman reported:

The evidence against the Douglas County satellite-TV company was so damning that some jurors wanted to award plaintiff Dale Alton, of Lakewood, as much as $30 million. "This was a compromise," he said. "I know it probably sounds like a lot of money . . . but it's something we felt was equitable."

The EEOC's own press release, modestly styled, EEOC Wins $8 Million Jury Verdict for Blind Worker In Disability Bias Case Against EchoStar has more details that might give some insight into what the jury foreman meant. According to the story:

When Mr. Alton first went to EchoStar to apply, EchoStar told him it would not do him any good to put in an application because they were not set up to handle blind people. However, after receiving a copy of his charge of discrimination, EchoStar invited Mr. Alton back and put him through a sham interview process that included a Braille test, which was longer and more difficult that the test given sighted people, and a Windows skill test that consisted of a person giving him directions on how to access icons, such as "move to the left, move down, now click."

Much of the testimony was centered on whether or not the employer could have accommodated Alton's blindness with a special screen reader software program known as JAWS. An in court demonstration on how it worked apparently convinced the jury.

Another note to the wise. This is not the first time this year that the EEOC has been reported in an MDV story, see MDV Watch - EEOC Hits DuPont in Louisiana Trial and Just In Time For Christmas - FedEx MDV Verdict. In the past, EEOC trial lawyers have often been discounted, and in fact they are often stretched too far and too thin. However, given the recent results it is a clear that they can be a force to be reckoned with. Any employer (or their counsel) who goes to trial under the impression that they will not be able to try a good case, should probably think again.


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