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Federal court lowers $240M EEOC Disability Verdict to $1.6M

courtOn May 1st, an Iowa federal jury awarded $240 million to a class of 32 individuals with intellectual disabilities in a discrimination case against Hill Country Farms. Now, the court is limiting what would have been a landmark verdict to $1.6 million due to statutory limits on recovery of damages.

The lawsuit, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Hill Country Farms Inc., asserted that Hill Country Farms mistreated the employees for more than 20 years, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The affected employees, whose jobs involved eviscerating turkeys, worked in a turkey processing plant in Muscatine County, Iowa.

Following a week-long trial, the jury awarded an original verdict of $7.5 million to each of the 32 employees on whose behalf the EEOC brought a discrimination case. The jury found that each worker was entitled to $5.5 million in compensatory damages after concluding that Hill Country Farms subjected the workers to disparate treatment and a hostile work environment. The jury also awarded each employee an additional $2 million in punitive damages based on a finding that the company had acted with malice or with reckless indifference to their federally protected rights.

The EEOC alleged in their argument that Hill Country Farms only paid its employees with disabilities $65 a month for full-time work, which was less than what it paid its employees without disabilities.

Unfortunately, the law caps compensatory and punitive damages for a company of Hill Country Farms’ size in an ADA case at $50,000 per victim of discrimination. This means that instead of recovering $7,500,000 each for 20 years of discrimination and mistreatment, the 32 employees with intellectual disabilities will only receive $50,000 each plus the amounts previously awarded by the court for wage discrimination and applicable prejudgment interest on all the monetary damages awarded.

Although the ADA is a helpful statute that helps provide the civil rights protections for individuals with disabilities, it is not without its faults. The limitations for recovery in this case are a clear demonstration of one of its greatest faults.

The fact that a company, which has undoubtedly made large profits thanks to its discriminatory mistreatment of its employees for the past 20 years, can get off on a technicality of a law that is meant to protect those very people who have been injured is a miscarriage of justice. Congress should review and revise the ADA to avoid this kind of injustice in the future.

By Eric J. Einhart-Guest Blogger

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