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A wheelchair-using Walmart meat department employee in Nebraska can go to a jury with allegations he was wrongfully denied an exemption from a company policy requiring him to wear a butcher coat, a federal judge ruled.
The Oct. 5 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska is a reminder that a disabled worker doesn’t have to fill out a form or adhere to any special formalities to make a protected job accommodation request under federal law.
Robert Rozmiarek says he typically didn’t wear his butcher coat and needed to be excused from Walmart’s requirement that he wear one because the coat tended to get tangled in his wheelchair. Rozmiarek uses a wheelchair because one of his legs was amputated.
It’s undisputed that Rozmiarek told one of his supervisors about his problem wearing the coat, the court said. Rozmiarek says the supervisor replied that he didn’t have to wear it; the supervisor says he told Rozmiarek to submit an accommodation request to human resources, which Rozmiarek never did.
A jury must resolve that factual dispute, Judge Laurie Smith Camp said. It also must determine whether the supervisor led Rozmiarek to believe he would follow up on Rozmiarek’s accommodation request, as well as the extent to which Rozmiarek’s failure to wear the butcher coat factored into his termination, the judge said.
A worker is only required to provide an employer with sufficient information to put it on notice that a disability-related job accommodation may be needed, the court said. It rejected Walmart’s argument that Rozmiarek had—and failed—to fill out a form to trigger the job-accommodation requirements of federal and Nebraska law.
But Walmart was entitled to a favorable ruling on Rozmiarek’s discriminatory discharge and retaliation claims, obviating a need for trial on those allegations, the court said.
There’s no evidence that the two managers who made the decision to fire Rozmiarek for alleged performance deficiencies knew about his issue with the butcher coat until after they made their decision. The 45 days between Rozmiarek’s complaint about having to wear the coat and his discharge was too long, by itself, to find the two events were connected, the court said.
Rozmiarek didn’t present any other evidence linking his accommodation request and termination, it said.
“I have not discussed the order with my client yet, so I can’t comment on appealing the retaliation and discrimination claims,” Jon V. Rehm, who represents Rozmiarek, told Bloomberg Law. “My client is a very likable guy and I am happy he will be able to exercise his 7th Amendment rights and tell his story to a jury of his peers,” Rehm of Rehm, Bennett Law Firm in Lincoln, Neb., said in an Oct. 9 email.
“Walmart is an equal opportunity employer and we do not tolerate discrimination,” a company spokesman told Bloomberg Law Oct. 9. “We employ thousands of associates with disabilities who perform their jobs with reasonable accommodations. We are pleased that the district court dismissed several claims raised by the plaintiff. We deny the remaining allegations. We have attempted to resolve the case, and we remain open to reaching a resolution,” he said.
Heidi A. Guttau-Fox and Leigh C. Joyce of Baird, Holm Law Firm in Omaha, Neb., represent Walmart.
The case is Rozmiarek v. Walmart Stores, Inc., 2018 BL 368762, D. Neb., No. 8:17CV353, summary judgment denied in part 10/5/18.
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