Bill Egan writes:
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Aside from whistleblower and highly offensive sexual harassment cases, there may be no claim that elicits the protective instincts of the average jury more than disability discrimination cases, especially where the disability is cancer-related. Employees with disabilities who are terminated without demonstrable cause often are seen as suffering the double indignity of dealing with whatever hardship their disability imposes and the termination of their employment because of it. Adept attorneys paint a picture of the employer kicking an employee when he’s down and when you place the outcome of such a case in the hands of average Americans (i.e., a jury), and you have the makings of a big verdict.
Such was the case of Axel v. Fields Motorcars of Florida, Inc., where a Mercedes dealership terminated a 71-year-old used car and wholesale manager, Michael Axel, who had been diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2010. Following surgery, the cancer metastasized to his lungs. Axel elected to undergo an experimental treatment that came with very unpleasant side effects described as “tremendous” stomach pain, sores in his mouth, and sores on his feet. Evidence was introduced that Axel’s supervisor expressed frustration with Axel because, among other reasons, he was “not getting real doctors treatment” but “other holistic or crazy things.”
The dealership terminated Axel in 2014, allegedly for making misrepresentations in 2004 on paperwork needed to obtain an auto auction access card for his son, a non-employee of the dealership who occasionally assisted Axel in transporting used cars to the local auto auction. The son was not accused of misusing this authority other than to move vehicles. In fact, he was employed by the dealership at the time of his father’s termination. The misrepresentation on which the termination allegedly was based was discovered ten years after the fact, leading to the decision to terminate. Pre-trial submissions did not reveal much in the way of other performance deficiencies by Axel.
The jury apparently rejected the dealership’s stated reason for the termination as pretext for disability discrimination. It found that Axel was fired because of his disability in violation of the Florida Human Rights Act and awarded Axel $680,000 in lost wages and benefits, $600,000 for emotional distress, and $3.22 million dollars in punitive damages. Notably, despite allegations of stray remarks reflective of possible age animus, the jury found that there was no age discrimination in the decision to terminate Axel’s employment.
A runaway verdict? Perhaps, but verdicts of this nature and magnitude seem to occur more frequently in disability discrimination cases. This jury’s rejection of the age discrimination claim demonstrates a thoughtful and discerning assessment of the evidence presented. This case serves as a reminder that disability discrimination cases stand in a class of their own and must be handled with utmost care and discretion.
Bill Egan is a partner in the Labor & Employment Department, resident in Fox’s Minneapolis office.