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Garden center settles ADA claim for $50K

A Hyattsville-based farm and nursery will pay $50,000 to a former employee who was fired after the company discovered he has hemophilia.

Homestead Gardens Inc. said it would pay Richard Starkey as part of a larger settlement of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s claim that the company had violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under the decree, Homestead Gardens also agreed to develop a formal method for fully investigating employee claims of illegal discrimination or retaliation, including the assignment of a person to conduct independent investigations of each complaint.

The company admitted no wrongdoing in agreeing to the consent decree, which was signed by Judge Roger W. Titus in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

Craig F. Ballew and Gregory P. Currey, attorneys for Homestead Gardens, did not return telephone messages seeking comment. They are with Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew PA in Baltimore.

On April 9, 2009, the company hired Starkey to work as a stocker. Homestead Gardens did not know he had the circulatory disorder until 18 days later, when the 19-year-old’s mother called the company to say he was unable to report to work that day, EEOC stated.

During the conversation, she mentioned Starkey has hemophilia.

In response, the company refused to let Starkey return to work until his doctor signed a letter stating that Starkey could perform a list of duties that were unrelated to his job, such as handling sharp objects in a fast and effective manner, EEOC said.

Starkey’s job of stocking shelves did not require him to handle sharp objects and he, like other employees, wore protective equipment such as gloves as a precaution, the commission added.

The doctor declined to sign the letter, and Homestead fired Starkey on May 10, 2009.

The commission alleged the company took the action because it regarded Starkey as being disabled and declined to make an effort to accommodate his perceived disability, in violation of the ADA.

The case sends the message that employers should not rely on “stereotypes and unfounded beliefs” regarding an employee based on a perceived disability, said John A. Henderson, a trial attorney in the EEOC’s Baltimore office.

As an employer, “you shouldn’t jump to conclusions,” Henderson said.

“The obligation is on the employer to have a conversation with the employee of what the needs are and whether the needs can be met,” he added. “Failing to do so has dire consequences for both parties.”

Under the consent decree, Homestead Gardens said it will establish an “effective complaint process” for investigating employee complaints of discrimination, including a toll-free telephone number and email address for receiving allegations. The company will then “fully investigate” each complaint “in a timely manner.”

The investigator will report the investigation’s findings to the company’s equal employment opportunity officers within 60 days of the complaint.

In addition, the company will consult with an expert in reasonable accommodations to make the workplace accessible for disabled employees and job applicants. The consultant may not be an employee of the company, under the consent agreement.

Homestead Gardens has until Jan. 1 to submit to the EEOC a report listing all of its employees and job applicants who have alleged discrimination during the second half of 2012. The report, to be updated every six months through July 1, 2014, will also list the action the company took in response to the allegations.

In addition, Homestead Gardens will provide anti-discrimination training to its supervisors and discipline — including termination if necessary — any supervisor who violates the company’s policies or laws prohibiting job bias.

The company must also post a “notice to employees” notifying them of the consent decree and that Homestead Gardens “will adopt and vigorously enforce policies prohibiting discrimination and retaliation and it will provide training to its employees.”

EEOC V. HOMESTEAD GARDENS INC.

Court:

U.S. District Court, Greenbelt

Case No.:

8:10-cv-02709-RWT

Judge:

Roger W. Titus

Outcome:

Consent decree with $50,000 settlement, injunctive relief

Dates:

Event: May 10, 2009

Suit filed: Sept. 29, 2010

Consent decree ordered: June 4, 2012

Plaintiff’s Attorneys:

John A. Henderson and Debra M. Lawrence of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Baltimore.

Defendant’s Attorneys:

Craig F. Ballew and Gregory P. Currey of Ferguson, Schetelich and Ballew PA in Baltimore.

Count:

Americans with Disabilities Act.