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EEOC sues Toys ‘R’ Us under ADA

The case of a deaf woman who allegedly was forced to bring her own interpreter to a job interview at Toys “R” Us in Columbia was so egregious that the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission felt compelled to sue the retailer — something it does in roughly 1 percent of the complaints it receives each year, according to a spokeswoman.

Lauren Young, director of litigation at the Maryland Disability Law Center in Baltimore.

Christine Saah Nazer, the spokeswoman, said the agency received almost 100,000 charges alleging unlawful employment practices in 2012, and filed only 122 lawsuits.

“When we say filing a lawsuit is a last resort, it really is a last resort,” Nazer said. “We always make a few attempts to resolve the issue through voluntary mediation or conciliation before resorting to litigation.”

The EEOC sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of Shakirra Thomas, a profoundly deaf woman who communicates through American Sign Language, lip-reading and the written word.

The suit, filed Tuesday, claimed the store’s practices were intentional and done with “malice or with reckless indifference to Thomas’ federally protected rights.”

Kathleen Waugh, vice president for corporate communications for Toys “R” Us, said in an emailed statement Thursday that “as this is a matter of pending litigation, we cannot comment at this time.”

The EEOC filed suit after its attempt to reach a voluntary pre-litigation settlement failed, Nazer said in an interview Thursday.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, says Thomas applied for a team member position at the store in October 2011. She received an invitation to a group interview on Nov. 5, 2011, but was told she would have to bring her own interpreter.

Thomas brought her mother, who also followed up after the interview to inquire about the position, but Toys “R” Us failed to respond, the complaint alleges.

According to the Toys “R” Us website, team members regularly work with guests “to find and sell products that match their needs.” Part of the job also involves keeping the store well stocked and looking neat.

Thomas “possessed the requisite qualifications for a Team Member position [and] … was capable of performing the essential functions of a Team Member with or without reasonable accommodation,” the EEOC said in its complaint.

The EEOC attorneys involved in the case — P. David Lopez, James L. Lee, Gwendolyn Young Reams, Debra M. Lawrence, Maria Salacuse and James L. Cerwinski — referred requests for comment to Nazer.

Thomas’ experience is far from unique, advocates say.

“The National Association of the Deaf receives numerous complaints from deaf and hard of hearing individuals across the country who share the same experience as [the woman named in the] complaint,” Howard A. Rosenblum, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Deaf in Silver Spring, said Thursday in an emailed statement. “The Americans with Disabilities Act has been law for nearly 23 years, and there is no excuse for failing to provide communication access or refusing to hire deaf and hard of hearing individuals.”

Federal law requires that employers and prospective employers provide “communication access,” including qualified sign language interpreters during interviews and meetings, Rosenblum added.

Joe Espo, an attorney at Brown Goldstein Levy LLP in Baltimore, successfully represented deaf sports fans in their case against the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field to gain access to the lyrics to music played during games. Espo said Friday it is common in a whole host of settings for entities, both businesses and governments, not to live up to their obligation to provide for effective communication for individuals who are deaf.

Lauren Young, director of litigation at the Maryland Disability Law Center in Baltimore, also said she was dismayed to hear about the allegations.

“If she was qualified to do the job, they should have given her a chance,” Young said. “It’s a big-chain store, so I would expect Toys “R” Us would comply with EEOC guidelines.”

Based on the facts alleged, Young said, the toy store ought to be settling.

“They misunderstood the law,” she said. “They should have provided an interpreter at the interview and had a discussion with the applicant as to how they could reasonably accommodate her. She might have been a stellar employee but they didn’t give her a chance.”