A California state jury has handed down a $3 million award to a Caltrans (California Department of Transportation) employee in a case alleging harassment by supervisors. John Barrie, a staff services analyst at Caltrans, alleged his supervisors harassed him by intentionally triggering his allergies through exposure to chemicals such as perfumes and cleaning solutions.
Barrie began working at Caltrans in 2005. He informed his supervisor at the time that he had a disability that caused him to have severe reactions to certain chemicals (such as perfumes and cleaning supplies). Barrie’s supervisor provided him with an “unofficial” accommodation, which worked well for the next five years. Barrie’s supervisor asked his coworkers not to wear perfume, and the cleaning crew was instructed not to use certain supplies such as Windex.
In 2010, a new supervisor took over Barrie’s department. The supervisor rescinded Barrie’s “unofficial” accommodation. Barrie then requested a formal accommodation, but the “unofficial” accommodation was not reinstated. Perfume and cleaning chemicals were used in his workspace. Barrie’s complaint alleged that after he filed an internal, complaint his supervisors retaliated against him. For instance, he was transferred to another office without explanation. Barrie was placed in the lobby and asked to perform reception duties, which he viewed as a demotion. Barrie also alleged he was forced to miss out on opportunities to earn overtime.
In 2012, a Caltrans Human Resources representative did a surprise inspection in which they found perfumes and cleaning chemicals had been sprayed in Barrie’s office. Instead of vindicating him, this led to further retaliation. According to notes from the investigation, Barrie’s supervisors wanted to punish him for going “outside of the chain of command.” Another time, Barrie alleged that he came to work to find his lumbar pillow soaked in perfume. Barrie alleged that his supervisor called him “idiot” and “jerk,” and that other coworkers accused him of “causing problems.”
Barrie filed his lawsuit in February 2013. In May 2017, the jury delivered a $3-million-dollar verdict for Barrie. Barrie continues to work for Caltrans, although he now works remotely. Caltrans is considering an appeal. This case is a reminder to employers that employee requests for accommodation must be taken seriously.