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Damage Caps

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One of the reasons that corporations can quite literally get away with murder is that the fines they face for their actions simply don’t add up to enough that it matters, especially to large companies. This is not murder, but it is the unlawful firing of a worker with Down Syndrome.

A federal jury in Wisconsin needed only three hours earlier this month before deciding to tag America’s largest employer with $125 million in punitive damages for firing a longtime employee with Down Syndrome.

Marlo Spaeth held a job at Walmart for about 16 years without issue, but she began struggling after the company implemented an algorithm-based scheduling system in 2014. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission argued on her behalf that her disability made it difficult to adapt to a new routine. Walmart fired her for attendance and punctuality issues after she was assigned a new shift schedule.

EEOC Chair Charlotte Burrows said after the trial that the “substantial jury verdict” against the world’s largest retailer “sends a strong message” to other employers and businesses.

But it seems that’s only true in theory.

As Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove noted, the jury’s award will be lowered by the judge to somewhere around $300,000 – the cap on damages in lawsuits under the Americans With Disabilities Act against employers with more than 500 workers.

Sandra Sperino, a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, told me that one of the “weird” things about the statute is that it specifies that the jury shouldn’t be told about the damages cap. Sperino wrote a 2017 book called “Unequal: How America’s Courts Undermine Discrimination Law.” She said she has plans to incorporate the Walmart case into her courses because it seems like a good tool to teach the issue of statutory damages caps.

“The jury deliberates without any knowledge of the cap. Then, when it actually comes into play, it’s the judge that reduces the award according to the cap,” she said.

Sensible! The law can tell Walmart, “You were really bad! You should pay for it!” And then the other side of the law, the one that matters, asks for their pocket change. That will teach them a lesson!

Damage caps need to be revoked in all these regulatory laws. Fine them til it actually hurts. $125 million is appropriate. $300,000 is…chump change.

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