— A judge on Feb. 17 overturned a $750,000 verdict against the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services after a jury determined the agency hadn’t made a “reasonable accommodation” for a former employee’s disability, according to the Olympian
The verdict was awarded Jan. 24 to Pierre Gautier, a former agency employee who is paralyzed from the waist down and has limited use of his hands, after a three-week trial in Thurston County Superior Court. But Judge Chris Wickham overruled the jury Friday, agreeing with the state’s attorneys, who argued that the evidence did not support such a large monetary award.
The judge said he could not in “good conscience” let the ruling stand. He said he was convinced jurors had reached their decision by considering facts and evidence not presented in court. He set a hearing date in two weeks to determine how to proceed with the lawsuit, which began in 1998.
The ruling does not reverse the jury’s factual findings, and Wickham encouraged both sides to consider an alternative to trial, such as mediation, in determining monetary damages.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that employers make reasonable accommodations for qualified employees, such as modifying equipment, work settings, training examinations and policies, or requiring readers or interpreters, as long as it does not interfere with work-product standards.
In 1996, Gautier, a reasonable accommodation manager who worked with students at Rainier and Fircrest schools, requested access to a two-door, full-size car without a center console, which made it easiest for him to lift himself in and out of his wheelchair and into the vehicle.
He requested the vehicle because his job description had changed, requiring him to drive 1,000 miles per month, and employees without disabilities had access to the motor pool. It’s harder and less safe to lift both himself and the wheelchair into four-door vehicles because the openings are smaller and designed differently, he claimed in the lawsuit.
According to the plaintiff’s case, the agency has limited transportation resources for disabled employees. He had asked to use one of three state vans fitted with a wheelchair lift and was denied. He also requested a one-handed keyboard, which the agency also rejected, reported the Olympian.
The agency’s attorneys, however, argued that the agency was forced to find a solution because it had no available wheelchair-accessible vehicles to fit Gautier, who, at 6 feet 6 inches tall, also needed extra leg room.
Both sides dispute how much effort the agency put into finding an option, but ultimately, officials asked him to use his personal two-door vehicle for business with an agreement that he’d be reimbursed for mileage.
However, Gautier was involved in a collision while on-duty that wrecked the vehicle. The state then rented him a four-door Lincoln Continental, and later referred him to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation services for a $14,000 loan to purchase an Oldsmobile, which he alleges did not meet his needs.
A jury ruled in his favor, finding that DSHS should have done more and, as a result, caused injury to the plaintiff. It awarded him $750,000 for emotional stress, but found no economic damages, reported the Olympian.
The judge had tossed out claims of wrongful termination and racial discrimination against Gautier, who is black, before the case went to trial. The lawsuit, however, had contended that Gautier’s position was eliminated out of retaliation while he was on medical leave for a shoulder injury.
Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Meyer, who represented DSHS, argued that the jury improperly speculated as to whether the plaintiff had been fired and how much in lost wages he might be entitled to when calculating damages.
Noneconomic damages, for things such as emotional distress or suffering, typically are awarded in a comparison to economic damages, such as lost wages or financial loss, she also said. In this case, the jury found no economic damages and were precluded from hearing evidence about wages, which makes such a sizable non-economic finding questionable, she said.
The law requires that accommodations be made to allow an employee to do his job effectively, which Gautier was enabled to do, as evidenced by his glowing job performance evaluations, she said, according to the Olympian.
Gautier’s attorney, Christopher Bawn, declined to comment and also advised his client not to talk to reporters.
Gautier, of Seattle, was paralyzed in a diving accident while in his 20s. He worked for DSHS from 1994 to 1998 and once aspired to rise through the ranks to become the head of the agency, court documents say.