It is illegal to discriminate against someone because of a disability, or even a perceived disability. Employers are allowed to raise many different defenses, upon being accused of discrimination. The most common defense is that the real reason for the company's actions was non-discriminatory. Another common defense is that the disabled employee posed a direct threat that justified whatever action the company took. In a recent EEOC disability case, the accused employer asserted as its defense essentially that it had to do what its customers wanted. Is that legal?
Security guard terminated after customer complains
Alberto Tarud-Saieh worked as a security guard for Florida Commercial Security Services, a full-service asset protection security firm. Tarud-Saieh lost his arm in a car accident, but was still able to perform his duties as a security guard. After his first day assigned to a community association he was terminated. The reason had nothing to do with his performance or any lack of ability to do his job. Instead, the president of the community association complained that "[t]he [security services] company is a joke. You sent me a one-armed security guard." Tarud-Saieh's employer immediately terminated him, instead of reassigning him to another post.
The so-called "customer preference" defense rejected at trial
At trial, the EEOC challenged the employer's defense that it was only responding to the preferences of its customer. However, there is well-settled law that an employer cannot rely on the discriminatory preferences or stereotypes of a customer in violating the ADA. The jury correctly determined that Tarud-Saieh, a licensed security guard with one arm, was illegally discriminated against because of his disability, when he was removed from his job. The customer complaint was not a legitimate basis for his termination.
Disabled employee awarded damages for discrimination
The jury awarded the security guard monetary damages in the amount of $35,922. The EEOC also sought an injunction prohibiting discrimination in the future, which will include training and the implementation of anti-discrimination employment policies. This award came after the EEOC attempted to settle this matter before trial. It is the EEOC's policy to try to resolve cases informally, whenever possible.
Nonetheless, the jury verdict was clearly a vindication, as the jury agreed that Mr. Tarud-Saieh could perform his security job just as he was licensed to do. The lesson to be learned for employers is that, you cannot legally rely on the stereotypes and misconceptions that others have about the disabled, but instead you must treat people based on their actual abilities.
If you feel you have been the victim of discrimination, or if you have any questions regarding your employment rights, please contact Wrady & Michel, LLC either online or by calling us at (205) 265-1880.