On May 1, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
that an Iowa jury awarded damages totaling $240 million — the largest verdict in the
federal agency’s history — in a lawsuit related to disability discrimination and
Update: On May 14, 2013, a federal district court issued an order that capped the damages at $1.6 million because Title I of the ADA imposes a statutory cap on damages of $50,000 (combined compensatory and punitive damages) for each claimant.
The lawsuit filed by the EEOC against Hill County Farms, doing business as Henry’s Turkey Service, alleged that the company subjected a group of 32 men with intellectual disabilities to severe abuse and discrimination for a period between 2007 and 2009, after 20 years of similar mistreatment.
The jury agreed and awarded each of the men $2 million in
punitive damages and $5.5 million in compensatory damages. This verdict follows
a 2012 order from the district court judge that Henry’s Turkey pay the men $1.3
million for unlawful disability-based wage discrimination — making
the total judgment $241.3 million.
The affected men lived in Iowa, where they worked for 20
years as part of a contract between Henry’s Turkey and West Liberty Foods, an
Iowa turkey processing plant. At trial, the EEOC presented evidence that the
owners and staffers of Henry’s Turkey subjected the workers to abusive verbal
and physical harassment for years and years; restricted their freedom of
movement; and imposed other harsh terms and conditions of employment such as
requiring them to live in deplorable and sub-standard living conditions and
failing to provide adequate medical care when needed.
The EEOC alleged that Henry’s Turkey exploited the workers,
whose jobs involved eviscerating turkeys, because their intellectual
disabilities made them particularly vulnerable and unaware of the extent to
which their legal rights were being denied.
Such abuse violated the Americans with Disabilities Act
(ADA), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability, including
intellectual disabilities, in terms and conditions of employment and wages and
bars disability-based harassment. The EEOC filed its lawsuit after attempting
to settle the case through its conciliation process.
Protecting vulnerable workers from disparate pay, harassment
and other discriminatory policies is one of the priorities identified in the
EEOC’s Strategic Enforcement Plan.
HRCalifornia’s HR Library offers extensive information on federal and state laws
that protect employees with disabilities.