Remember when your mom told you that ignoring a problem won’t make it go away? That problems left to fester are likely to grow worse, perhaps substantially so? That’s a lesson Ameriport, LLC and Ocean Properties, Ltd. likely wish they had shared with their employees and managers, as the companies were hit with a $650,000 jury verdict for failing to act on a wheelchair user’s request for a reasonable accommodation.
Facts of the Case
Ryan Burnett, who was paralyzed in a dirt bike accident more than 20 years ago, worked at a call center in Maine, where he was responsible for helping customers make hotel room reservations. Ameriport, LLC was Burnett’s employer, and Ocean Properties, Ltd. was an associated business. The entrance to the call center where Burnett worked had heavy, wooden doors, which Burnett found difficult to hold open while pushing himself through the entrance in his wheelchair.
On August 28, 2014, Burnett sent an email to the office manager to explain his difficulty in accessing the building and to request that push-button, automatic doors be installed. The office manager did not respond, but forwarded Burnett’s request to two supervisors on September 10, 2014. On September 30, 2014, one of the supervisors emailed the person who constructed the building and asked “if the set of large wooden doors” used to enter the building were “ADA compliant.” That same day, the construction professional responded with, “”As constructed when the building was built, Yes.”
Although the staff believed no ADA violation had occurred, they failed to communicate this information to Burnett, or provide an update on his request for an accommodation. In October 2014, Burnett injured his wrist while entering the building. He reported the incident to another supervisor, but still no one provided an update on his accommodation request. In June 2015, Burnett filed a disability discrimination complaint with the Maine Human Rights Commission, and in February 2016 he resigned from his position with his request for automatic doors left unresolved.
The Trial & Verdict
Burnett took his case to the courts and alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Maine Human Rights Act. At trial, the jury determined that Bennett’s employers had failed to reasonably accommodate his disability and that they had acted intentionally or with reckless indifference. The jury awarded Burnett $150,000 in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages ($200,000 under the ADA and $300,000 under the MHRA), for a total of $650,000. During post-trial motions, the parties agreed to remit (reduce) the total judgment to $500,000.
Ameriport and Ocean Properties appealed the ruling in the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, but their appeal was dismissed. In a court order dated February 2, 2021, the plaintiff’s $500,000 award for damages was upheld.
Here’s what the company could have done instead to save $500K
Mr. Burnett’s rights were violated because his employer did not respond to his request for an accommodation. Even if the reportedly heavy doors were ADA compliant, the company was still required to consider requests for disability accommodations, even if such an accommodation would go beyond the minimum standard for regulatory compliance.
An automatic, push-button door opener may not have been required to improve the accessibility of the entry door, though installing one would have undoubtedly solved Burnett’s access issue. If the company had agreed to install an automatic door opener, the cost would not have been too great. There are a number of high-quality kits retailing for less than $1,000 on Amazon, including the Olide 120B Automatic Door Opener. Depending on the amount of labor involved in the installation and assembly, it is reasonable to assume that the project could have been completed for under $3,000 with such a kit.
If Ameriport and Ocean Properties had taken Mr. Burnett’s request for an accommodation seriously as the law requires, they would have prioritized making it easier and safer for wheelchair users to enter the office building. By failing to give thorough consideration to the requested accommodation or potential alternatives, and by leaving their employee in the dark, the companies violated state and federal law and opened themselves up to significant liability. A series of mistakes, rooted in a lack of concern for a disabled colleague, led to a $500,000 judgment that could have been easily avoided.