Federal Court Awards $1.8 Million to Employee Fired Due to Disability Discrimination

Employment, Disability Rights

In June 2017, a federal district judge ordered the Snohomish County PUD to pay $1.8 million to our client Cynthia Stewart, a former customer service representative whom the PUD wrongfully fired for perceived side effects from prescription medications Ms. Stewart took for her chronic migraine headaches.

MHB attorneys Joe Shaeffer, Katie Chamberlain, and Sam Kramer represented Ms. Stewart throughout her case, culminating in a 5-day trial before Judge John C. Coughenour.  Following the trial, Judge Coughenour ruled that the PUD failed to accommodate Stewart’s disability and discriminated against her because of it, writing that the PUD should have “treated her as an employee with a medical condition, rather than a drug abuser.”  

Ms. Stewart suffered debilitating migraine headaches the entire 23 years she worked for the PUD.  In 2013, PUD supervisors began expressing frustration at Ms. Stewart’s need for time off to receive treatment for her migraines.  In October 2014, a supervisor claimed that Ms. Stewart showed signs of impairment after she returned from her doctor’s office where she received a shot of pain medication.  Even though the PUD knew any side-effects were a direct result of the medication prescribed for her disability, it forced Ms. Stewart to sign a last-chance agreement as a condition of her returning to work – effectively threatening to fire Ms. Stewart if it ever again suspected she suffered such side effects.  In April 2015, the PUD again suspected Ms. Stewart of being impaired after a doctor’s visit, and terminated her employment.  “The PUD treated Ms. Stewart like a drug addict and criminal, rather than accommodate her disability as the law requires,” said Shaeffer.

Washington law requires an employer to provide reasonable accommodations to employees with disabilities, and prohibits employers from taking disciplinary actions against employees for their disabilities, including disability-related conduct or medication side effects.  MHB successfully argued that the PUD violated the law by treating Ms. Stewart like a drug addict and criminal, rather than accommodating her disability as the law requires. 

The court’s ruling in favor of Ms. Stewart vindicates the rights of all Washington employees who suffer from a disability, enforcing the important principle that employees should be able to seek appropriate medical treatment without fear of losing their jobs.

Attorneys who worked on this case:

Joe Shaeffer, Katherine Chamberlain

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