Tuesday, August 21, 2018

An expensive lesson on disability harassment

With of all of the attention the #MeToo Movement has provided sexual harassment, employers must not forget that all forms of unlawful workplace discrimination include unlawful harassment.

This includes disability harassment.

For example, consider Caldera v. Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation (Cal. Ct. App. 7/9/18).

Caldera involves a state prison correctional officer, Augustine Caldera, who suffers from a pronounced stutter, and his supervisor, Sergeant James Grove, who participated in repeated "demeaning, embarrassing, harmful, and hurtful" mocking of said stutter.

According to Caldera, "Whatever [words] I stuttered on, Grove would sit back and repeat what I stuttered." He estimates approximately a dozen incidents over a two-year period. According to one witness, "the harassing conduct was so pervasive that he regarded it as part of the culture at the prison."

For example, on one occasion, after Grove mimicked on his radio a radio announcement Caldera had broadcasted.

On another occasion, Caldera responded to something Grove had said to him by mocking his stutter with, "F--f--f--f**k you." When Caldera threatened to file a formal complaint, Grove replied, "I don't give a F-f-f. Make sure you get my name right."

The court of appeals affirmed a $500,000 jury verdict for Caldera on his harassment claim.

[T]he harassing conduct in this case was verbally directed and specifically aimed at Caldera (rather than people with speech impediments in general, although that would certainly be similarly offensive). Further, Caldera personally witnessed the harassing conduct directed at him on at least five occasions. And, according to Caldera, Grove always mocked and mimicked his speech impediment in the presence of other employees. 

While we can argue whether this degree of harassment should equate to a half-million-dollar verdict, or whether the result would be different in a state other than California, Caldera still serves as a worthy cautionary tale for employers. Disability harassment is as unlawful as sexual harassment, and employers need to take it just as seriously.