Failure to provide reasonable accommodation to deaf employee costs Costco $775,000

A Florida jury recently awarded a former Costco employee $775,000 for her claim that the company failed to reasonably accommodate her disability.

The former employee is deaf and she claimed that Costco failed to provide sufficient interpreting services for her at work — specifically during larger group meetings (held via conference call).  While Costco had provided this employee with a video phone, the employee had complained that the video phone did not work properly during larger meetings where there are multiple conversations occurring at the same time.  The employee asked Costco to provide a live interpreter for the large meetings and, while Costco agreed to provide the interpreter, one was never actually provided.

Costco denied these allegations and further claimed that if any supervisor engaged in unlawful conduct, it occurred without the knowledge or authorization of Costco; therefore, Costco could not be held liable for disability discrimination.

The jury disagreed and found in favor of the plaintiff.  A critical factor in the jury’s decision was evidence that the employee’s supervisor did not receive the same disability sensitivity training as other Costco supervisors.  This failure to provide such training caused the jury to believe that Costco was responsible for the discrimination.

This case serves as a reminder to all employers that the interactive process is an ongoing process.  An employer’s obligation to provide reasonable accommodation does not end once a promise of accommodation is made.  Instead, it is important for the employer to verify that a promised accommodation is actually provided to the employee and also to check back in with the employee to verify that the accommodation provided is working for the employee.

In addition, this case highlights the importance of providing disability training to all managerial employees.