Bates v. UPS
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On July 17, 2003, a class of over 1,000 deaf workers across the country announced the settlement of their class action lawsuit against UPS. The lawsuit, titled Bates v. UPS, alleged that UPS – the nation’s 4th largest employer – systematically denied deaf people equal rights and opportunities in the workplace. The class action lawsuit was brought under the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) by five deaf UPS workers on behalf of deaf employees and applicants throughout the country. Plaintiffs sought to ensure that UPS provide sign language interpreters and other communication aids needed by deaf applicants and employees, as well as emergency alerts, text telephones, and equal access to equal opportunities for promotion.
This is the first such equal opportunity employment class action brought on behalf of deaf workers throughout the country concerning such workplace discrimination. The case was filed in federal court on May 31, 1999. Trial began on April 8, 2003. During the first two months of trial, plaintiffs presented testimony from 30 deaf UPS employees and applicants describing UPS’s failure to address communication barriers and UPS’s failure to ensure equal conditions and opportunities for deaf employees. The deaf plaintiffs and class action members testified that they were routinely excluded from workplace information, denied opportunities for promotion, and exposed to unsafe conditions due to lack of accommodations by UPS.
For example, plaintiff Babaranti Oloyede testified that UPS refused to provide him an interpreter during trainings on anthrax in 2001 when all of UPS’ hearing employees were given detailed safety instructions during the anthrax scare that killed and injured a number of postal workers, despite Mr. Oloyede’s repeated requests for an interpreter. In over 10 years working at UPS, Mr. Oloyede was never provided a qualified interpreter for any of the many trainings and workplace meetings that UPS holds for its non-disabled employees. Similarly, plaintiff Eric Bates testified that for years his repeated requests for interpreters to help him understand group trainings and meetings were ignored, as well as his request for help in understanding the promotion system. Many class members described how UPS repeatedly failed to provide captioning on training videos, with the result that they were unable to understand trainings on hazardous materials and other subjects.
Plaintiffs and class action members testified that UPS also lacked a system to alert them to emergencies, such as fires or chemical spills, to ensure that they would safely evacuate their facility. In fact, a number of class action members related how they were overlooked and forgotten during such emergency evacuations. Many class members explained that they also had no phone access for emergencies due to UPS’ failure to provide a text telephone, although hearing employees all had access to telephones. Finally, many class members also testified that they were told they could not become supervisors and were denied other promotional opportunities solely because they are deaf.
UPS witnesses stated that until recently, UPS had no policy to ensure that deaf applicants and employees actually received effective communication in the workplace. UPS witnesses admitted in the trial that UPS only began to address such communication barriers on the eve of trial in response to this class action lawsuit.
In the meantime, both before trial and during the trial, the parties engaged in lengthy settlement negotiations. After six weeks of trial, the parties have now reached a landmark agreement.
Under this settlement, UPS has agreed to a comprehensive accommodations program to be implemented throughout the country. This accommodations program is designed to ensure that deaf applicants and employees have full access to workplace information, equal workplace conditions and opportunities for promotion, and basic workplace safety. (See accompanying fact sheet.) UPS had begun to implement some of the accommodations required under this settlement on the eve of trial. The agreement submitted to the court today obligates UPS to follow through on these initial efforts and provides for outside monitoring and enforcement by the court to ensure that UPS provides equal workplace treatment and equal opportunities to deaf workers now and in the future.
UPS has also agreed to pay 5.8 million dollars in damages. Attorneys for the class believe that this is the largest such damages amount ever paid in an employment class action under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Named plaintiff Bert Enos expressed great satisfaction with the settlement. He noted:
“This has been a hard-fought battle to get UPS to recognize that deaf people have the right to equal treatment and opportunities. I am pleased that this giant company has now committed itself to correcting the many barriers that I and other deaf people throughout the country have faced in the workplace.”
Plaintiffs are represented by Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky LLP, a law firm specializing in civil rights and Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law center Caroline Jacobs, of Disability Rights Advocates, commented:
“This is a proud day in the disability rights movement. With this settlement, deaf people have achieved a precedent-setting victory establishing their right to equality in the workplace. We hope that this settlement sends a message to all employers throughout the country that employees with disabilities are entitled to the same rights and opportunities as other employees in the workplace.”
Todd Schneider, of Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky LLP, added:
“The substantial damages payment in this case reflects the fact that UPS has, year after year, denied fundamental civil rights to an entire class of employees with disabilities. The injunctive relief achieved by this settlement, however, is even more important than the damages. This case has achieved systemic changes to UPS’ policies and practices concerning the treatment of deaf workers. These changes will help ensure that deaf employees are finally able to succeed and advance throughout this major American corporation.”
Finally, Larry Paradis, Executive Director of Disability Rights Advocates, congratulated UPS for the substantial efforts it is making pursuant to the settlement. He noted:
“UPS is not alone among major American corporations in having failed to address barriers faced by deaf people in the workplace. Basic and often inexpensive accommodations, such as sign language interpreters at important trainings, enable deaf employees to become more integrated and productive in the workplace. Deaf people ask for nothing more than an equal chance to succeed in the workplace. We congratulate UPS for having committed, through this settlement, to a comprehensive and substantial plan of action to pro-actively ensure such equality throughout UPS operations.”
The settlement submitted to the court today resolves all issues in the case except for a policy UPS continues to maintain precluding deaf people from any driving positions within the company. Plaintiffs contend that with this policy UPS continues to discriminate against deaf people by refusing to individually assess deaf employees who seek to become drivers of UPS’ smaller vehicles. Other companies, such as the U.S. Postal Service, permit deaf employees who have demonstrated safe driving skills, to drive under 10,000 pound delivery vehicles. UPS, however, refuses to conduct any individualized assessment of deaf employees who seek the opportunity for promotion to such driving positions. This issue will be resolved by the court through further trial in the upcoming months.
The proposed settlement will require court approval after notice is distributed throughout the country and a fairness hearing is held. The parties hope that final approval will occur by the end of the year.