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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Starbucks Grande Too Tall for EEOC


Alabama@Work
By: Tommy Eden, Attorney

Soon after being hired by the El Paso Starbucks on July 27, 2009 Elsa Sallard asked to use a stool or small stepladder to perform the essential functions of preparing drink orders including a Mocha Coconut Frappuccino, operating the cash register and serving customers at the high serving counter.

Elsa has the physical impairment of dwarfism, which was obvious when she was hired by Starbucks Coffee Company to work in the customer service position of Barista. Elsa is substantially limited in the major life activities of reaching, lifting and performing manual tasks, all of which her position required. Starbucks disregarded Elsa’s request and refused to consider her use of a stool or stepladder. Her supervisor never engaged in the Americans with Disabilities (ADA) mandated interactive dialogue before saying no. On the same day that Elsa requested the accommodation, July 30th, Starbucks terminated her employment, claiming that she could pose a danger to customers and employees.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) did not see it that way. After it first attempted mediation, it filed suit on May 11, 2011 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, alleging that Starbucks violated federal law by denying a reasonable accommodation to a Barista with dwarfism and then firing her because of her disability.

The lawsuit alleges that such conduct violates Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act as Amended (ADAA), which prohibits employers from discriminating against qualified individuals with disabilities in hiring, firing, job application procedures, advancement, compensation, job training and other terms and conditions of employment. The ADAA requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees’ and applicants’ disabilities as long as this does not pose an undue hardship.

The EEOC is seeking injunctive relief, including the formulation of policies to prevent and correct disability discrimination. The suit also seeks lost wages and compensatory damages for Sallard and punitive damages against Starbucks Coffee Company, as well as attorney fees.

Common Sense Counsel: Employers cannot ignore a request for a reasonable accommodation by a qualified individual with a disability, as is alleged in this case. Apparently, Starbucks flatly refused to discuss Ms. Sallard’s reasonable request. Instead, they assumed the worst and fired her. The ADAA was enacted to prevent that kind of misguided, fear-driven reaction. Employers should be careful when declining to engage in the ADA interactive process which can uncover inexpensive accommodations, and documenting good-faith participation in the process can strengthen an employer’s position against an ADAA claim. Remember to always make the employee go first in suggesting an accommodation and make sure in every job description you include the essential job functions.

Tommy Eden is a Lee County native, an attorney with the local office of Capell & Howard, P.C. and a member of the ABA Section of Labor and Employment Law and serves on the Board of Directors for the East Alabama SHRM Chapter. He can be contacted at tme@chlaw.com or 334-501-1540.