SWCK wins victory in landmark trial of class action employment case against UPS
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LANDMARK DECISION ISSUED AFTER TRIAL OF A NATIONWIDE CLASS ACTION BY DEAF WORKERS AGAINST UNITED PARCEL SERVICE
On October 22, 2004, a class of over 1,000 deaf workers across the country announced a decision issued yesterday by the federal district court in San Francisco which represents a landmark victory in the employees’ class action lawsuit against UPS. The lawsuit, titled Bates v. UPS, alleged that UPS – the nation’s 4th largest employer – systematically discriminated against deaf employees by refusing to consider them for driving positions on the basis of their disability. The lawsuit was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by five deaf UPS workers on behalf of deaf employees and applicants throughout the country.
Until last summer, the lawsuit also included claims that UPS had failed to 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 opportunities for promotion. However, in July 2003, after several months of trial, the parties reached a comprehensive settlement regarding these issues which provided for sweeping injunctive relief and over $5 million in damages for members of the class action. Unfortunately, the parties were unable to reach an agreement on the issue of UPS’s policy precluding deaf people from holding any driving positions within the company as part of this settlement. Accordingly, that issue was the subject of the remainder of the trial and was submitted to the Court in December 2003.
The lawsuit is the first employment class action brought on behalf of deaf workers throughout the country concerning workplace discrimination and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The case was filed in federal court on May 31, 1999. Trial began on April 8, 2003 and concluded on November 20, 2003 with the final briefs submitted to the court on December 23, 2003. During the first two months of trial, plaintiffs presented testimony from 30 deaf UPS employees and applicants describing UPS’s refusal to even consider people who were deaf for driving positions despite their seniority and the availability of such positions at their facility.
For example, Named Plaintiff Babaranti Oloyede has worked for UPS since 1991 and has been attempting to obtain a driving position at UPS for several years. Despite his years of dedicated service to UPS and his ability to meet the driver qualification standards at UPS, he has been refused a driving position because he is deaf. Named Plaintiff Bert Enos was so frustrated and discouraged by UPS’s refusal to consider him for a driving position that he eventually left UPS. Numerous class action members testified that they endured the same frustration and discrimination when attempting to obtain driving jobs at UPS. Many class members testified that their hearing co-workers, who were hired at the same time or after they were hired, had been driving for years while the deaf employees toiled in low-level manual labor positions year after year.
In incorporating the testimony of these plaintiffs and class member in its findings, the Court noted that “Plaintiffs [should] be given the same opportunities that a hearing applicant would be given to show that they can perform the job of package-car driver safely and effectively...Deaf individuals who meet UPS’s threshold requirements cannot be categorically excluded and must instead be permitted to proceed through the company’s regular processes for becoming a package-car driver, with reasonable accommodations provided to them as needed.”
UPS’s defense throughout the trial of the driving issue focused on the stereotypical notion that people who are deaf are inherently unsafe drivers. However, this argument was not borne out by either the factual evidence or the expert testimony. People who are deaf, including the class members in this action, drive every day in all types of conditions. Although there are restrictions on the level of hearing required for driving work involving vehicles that weigh over 10,001 pounds, the driving work at issue in this lawsuit only concerned vehicles weighing less than 10,001 lbs. Thus, the only thing that stood between qualified driver applicants and a driving position was UPS’s policy, which the Court found untenable given UPS’s inability to present any evidence that people who are deaf pose any greater risk than non-deaf drivers. Thus, the Court concluded that UPS had not met its burden to justify imposing a complete bar on allowing people who are deaf to hold driving positions within the company.
Named plaintiff Babaranti Oloyede expressed great satisfaction with the Court’s ruling. He noted:
“After years of struggling it is very rewarding to hear that UPS can no longer prevent me from advancing to a driving position simply because I am deaf. I, and other deaf people throughout the county, will now be evaluated for positions based on our abilities like everyone else and not systematically excluded because of our disabilities.”
Plaintiffs are represented by by Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky LLP, a law firm specializing in civil rights and Disability Rights Advocates, a nonprofit law center.
Todd Schneider, of Schneider Wallace Cottrell Konecky LLP, says:
“This is a landmark decision for members of the disability community. Deaf employees have been seeking the same basic rights that every employee deserves – the right to move up the employment ladder by working hard and demonstrating their abilities and commitment to the job. The Court’s ruling makes clear that UPS can no longer deny workers with disabilities such basic rights.”
Caroline Jacobs, of Disability Rights Advocates, commented:
“As the Court noted, the evidence was clear that deaf drivers do not necessarily pose any greater risk than their hearing counterparts. Rather than engage in a good faith interactive process as required by the law, UPS’s decision-making was premised on unsupported stereotypes. We hope this sends a wake-up call to UPS and other employers that stereotypes and fears can no longer justify excluding entire classes of individuals from particular jobs.”
This case represents a huge victory for people with disabilities nationwide who are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).