On July 13, 2017, Volvo North America won a pyrrhic victory in an ADA/USERRA discrimination case. Specifically, after years of costly litigation, a $7.8 million jury verdict was reduced to $850,000. However, to get there, Volvo must have had to spend a small fortune (even for Volvo) on its own legal fees. Volvo is also responsible for paying Ms. Arroyo’s legal fees and prejudgment interest. The matter of Arroyo v. Volvo Group North America, LLC has been bouncing around the federal courts in Illinois for years. Ms. Arroyo first sued Volvo after she was terminated from employment in November 2011. She had been employed as a material handler for 6 years, and alleged that Volvo violated the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Over the course of her 6 years of employment, Volvo granted her more than 900 days of military leave as well as FMLA/STD leave, and also granted her many accommodations for her service-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including a modified Friday work schedule for those weeks she had weekend drill duty, time off to attend VA therapy appointments, an office in which to meditate, a mentor, breaks during panic/anxiety attacks, the ability to call a support person during panic/anxiety attacks, and use of ear plugs or noise dampening devices in one ear. There was also evidence that Ms. Arroyo had violated a number of Volvo policies, including attendance policies and conduct-related policies, such as threatening to harm another employee. Nevertheless, the jury returned a verdict of approximately $7.8 million including more than $5.2 in punitive damages.
The long, winding, expensive judicial road. There are three reported federal court decisions associated with the Arroyo v. Volvo matter: (1) a federal district court opinion granting summary judgment to Volvo on 9/30/14; (2) a 7th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion reversing this grant of summary judgment on 10/6/15; and (3) the most recent opinion dated 7/13/17 by the district court judge ruling on post-trial motions by both Ms. Arroyo and Volvo. One can glean why the jury wanted to punish Volvo from these opinions. There were internal emails indicating that Volvo management considered disciplining Arroyo for her absences when she was in the hospital for her PTSD even though they were aware of her condition, and one of her supervisors joked that she was actually “vacationing in Hawaii” and was “really becoming a pain.” Volvo management also repeatedly expressed frustration about her military absences and complained that these absences placed an undue hardship on Volvo. In addition, many of Ms. Arroyo’s attendance-related infractions(which were the grounds for her termination) involved her being between 1 and 10 minutes late for work, and evidence showed that Volvo did not terminate other employees for similar infractions.
Lessons for Employers? Simply stated? Compliance with laws requiring leave and accommodations is no joke. In reading these opinions, it is understandable why Volvo was frustrated with Ms. Arroyo. She made challenging, and continuously expanding, requests for accommodations, including. for example. a flexible schedule that allowed her to make up time in case of tardiness, day-to-day guidance and feedback, disability awareness training for employees, and that all communications be given to her in writing. She also attempted to circumvent company restrictions on parking, including one situation in which she parked in a handicapped spot and, when a co-worker reported her infraction to the police, Ms. Arroyo told management that this co-worker was “the enemy” and that she could have “punched her in the face or cursed her out.” In many respects, Volvo attempted to comply with the requirements of various laws (including USERRA, the FMLA and the ADA) and permitted a number of absences and leaves, and also granted a number of Ms. Arroyo’s extensive accommodation requests. However, the “grumbling” by management and its decision to terminate employment for relatively minor attendance infractions were its undoing. Liability could have been avoided here by: (1) management not making inappropriate comments and (2) Volvo not seizing on minor infractions to justify termination.