On January 25, 2004 — more than 4 years ago — Sprawl-Busters reported that a disabled man had filed a lawsuit against Wal-Mart through the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. The lawsuit accused the giant retailer of refusing to hire a job applicant who happened to have cerebral palsy. The EEOC claimed that Wal-Mart violated the 1991 Americans With Disabilities Act, when it refused to hire Steve Bradley, Jr., who applied for any job at the Wal-Mart in Richmond, Missouri, which is 40 miles from Kansas City. Bradley, who has CP, must use crutches and a wheelchair to get around. The EEOC filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Kansas City. The federal agency represents individuals who allege they have been discriminated against. At the time, the EEOC petitioned the court to require Wal-Mart to pay Bradley lost wages and benefits, compensatory and punitive damages and give him a job. In August of 2005, a U.S. District Judge in Kansas City granted Wal-Mart’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed the suit, saying the EEOC has provided insufficient evidence to make their case. The judge ruled that Bradley’s mobility limitations made him unsuitable for the positions of greeter and cashier. But Bradley did not give us his effort. On February 17, 2007 — three years after initiating his suit, Bradley won the support of a federal appeals court, which reinstated a lawsuit alleging that Wal-Mart violated the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act when it refused to hire him. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that significant facts remained in dispute, and voided the lower court’s summary judgment. “We’re obviously delighted with the decision,” said a regional attorney for the EEOC. “We presented substantial evidence that Mr. Bradley was totally qualified to be either a greeter or a cashier, and it’s really up to the jury to decide that question, not the court, as was done here.” The 8th Circuit’s ruling was significant because, for the first time, when an employer claims it didn’t hire a disabled applicant because the applicant is a threat to the safety of himself or others, the burden is on the employer — not the applicant — to prove it. In this case, Steve Bradley, Jr. first applied to be a greeter/customer assistant position at Wal-Mart in July 2000. He reapplied in 2001, so Bradley has been waiting for his day in court for nearly eight years. He uses forearm crutches for short walks and a wheelchair for longer distances. He is unable to stand for more than 15 minutes, but can climb stairs and get on and off a stool. He can write and hold things and lift heavy objects from his wheelchair. When he went to Wal-Mart for an interview in his wheelchair, he was rejected for the job. Wal-Mart, claimed that Bradley wasn’t qualified to perform the essential functions of either greeter or cashier. But the EEOC, said that Bradley could do either job with reasonable accommodation. The 8th Circuit ruled that Wal-Mart had offered “no evidence that Bradley cannot perform the essential functions of the greeter and cashier positions with reasonable accommodation.” The court found that the reasons Wal-Mart gave for not hiring Bradley — limited availability and lack of a job history — were just a way of avoiding the disability issue. The court ruled that an employer who claims a worker poses a “direct threat” has the burden of proof. Wal-Mart, never demonstrated how Bradley, “using a wheelchair or other similar device, poses any more of a threat than Wal-Mart customers who shop using such devices.” In 2007, Sprawl-Busters predicted that Wal-Mart would never let this case go to a jury. “Bradley will get his day in court,” we wrote, “but it is likely that Wal-Mart and the EEOC will reach a settlement out of court, because these kinds of stories generate negative headlines for Wal-Mart, which they desperately want to avoid.” That’s exactly what happened this week. The Associated Press reported that Bradley is going to receive a check for $300,000 to settle his lawsuit. The announcement was made by the EEOC. Bradley told the court that during his interview with Wal-Mart, he was asked about his ability to work using his wheelchair. He claims he was told that he was “best suited” to be a store greeter — but he was never hired.
As part of this settlement, Wal-Mart has agreed to give Americans With Disabilities Act training to its manager at the Richmond, Missouri store, where the incident began. The retailer also has to tell job applicants about the Bradley settlement, and let a number of job placement agencies in Kansas City know that Wal-Mart is looking to hire disabled persons. “This case sends an important message to employers that they cannot allow stereotypes or assumptions about disabled people to interfere with those people’s right to work in jobs for which they are qualified,” said a regional attorney for the EEOC’s St. Louis district office. One of the ironies of this case is that Bradley first became interested in working at Wal-Mart after viewing a TV commercial that showed disabled people working for the company. “We’re very hopeful that this settlement signals Wal-Mart’s strengthened commitment to employing people with disabilities,” the EEOC attorney told the AP. Wal-Mart has had many run-ins with the EEOC over the rights of disabled applicants. In 2001, Wal-Mart and the EEOC reached a $6.8 million consent decree, which ended 13 disability-related lawsuits. Wal-Mart’s mantra about its “associates” is: “Respect for the Individual.” But, as one former Wal-Mart worker once told me: “I’m sure that’s true — I just never met that individual, because I never got any respect.”