As a worker, successfully pursuing a discrimination claim can involve many hurdles. In addition to having strong evidence, you have to file on time, you have to comply with all the rules of procedure and you have to overcome your employer’s defenses. Doing these effectively often requires in-depth knowledge and experience, which is why it frequently pays to have a skilled Atlanta disability discrimination lawyer on your side from the start.
A disability discrimination case from here in the metro Atlanta area shows this process in action, with an employee overcoming an immunity argument and ultimately recovering a six-figure judgment, according to the Clayton Crescent.
B.W. was an employee of the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office and a woman with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The woman sought — and obtained — intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act to deal with her PTSD symptoms, which included “severe headaches, debilitating anxiety, and panic attacks.”
The employee also asked her employer to provide certain disability accommodations, including limiting her contact with male strangers and not assigning her any night shift work.
Nevertheless, the sheriff’s office moved her from an 8:00 am – 4:00 pm shift to a shift running from 2:30 pm – 10:30 pm. The woman provided written documentation from her medical providers at the Department of Veterans Administration indicating that a shift ending after dark could worsen the woman’s PTSD symptoms.
Allegedly, the woman’s immediate supervisors were on board with the requested accommodations and one colleague even offered to walk B.W. to her vehicle every night at the end of her shift. Nevertheless, the sheriff instructed a subordinate to initiate a “fitness for duty” process and then terminate B.W. According to the complaint, the county’s human resources director allegedly counseled the sheriff to accommodate the employee, but instead, the sheriff had a subordinate trump up a bogus case of violating the workplace dress and insubordination, which were used as the purported bases for firing her.
Immunity or No Immunity: State Court Versus Federal Court
Even when you have a strong case like this worker did, you may still face serious legal or procedural challenges. In B.W.’s case, before the trial, the sheriff pursued a defense strategy that involved asserting that the law prohibited the employee from suing at all. The crux of the argument was that the doctrine of sovereign immunity barred the lawsuit. The worker successfully contested that argument, with the court declaring that a 2002 Georgia Court of Appeals decision — which held that Georgia’s Fair Employment Practices Act waived sovereign immunity “for federal disability discrimination claims” — applied to B.W.’s lawsuit and meant that she could proceed.
One of the keys to the worker’s success was distinguishing her case from several previous rulings that had granted sovereign immunity. In those cases, the courts were addressing “whether the state waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity to suit in federal court for discrimination claims.” B.W.’s case was different, however. She had not sued in federal court. She sued in state court and the sheriff successfully had the case removed to federal court. That made a difference, the court said, and allowed B.W. to proceed unbarred by sovereign immunity.
After clearing this hurdle, B.W. advanced to a May 2023 trial. At the trial’s conclusion, the jury found in favor of the employee and awarded her more than $200,000.
In this case, the employer’s failure to understand the breadth of its potential liability exposure for disability discrimination proved to be an expensive mistake. Whether you’re an employer or an employee with questions about reasonable accommodations and disability discrimination, it pays to get sound legal advice. Count on the Atlanta disability discrimination attorneys at the law firm of Parks, Chesin & Walbert to have the helpful and reliable answers you need. Contact us through this website or at 877-986-5529 to schedule a consultation today to get the sound advice you need.