Snohomish County PUD To Pay Former Employee Over $3 Million In Wrongful Termination Lawsuit

Posted by Karen Hill

January 23, 2019

Finally, after a two-year appeal process, the Snohomish County PUD has finally paid former employee Cynthia Stewart over $2.4 Million.  MHB expects the PUD to pay an additional $626,000 plus interest in the near future.

In June 2017, Federal District Court Judge John C. Coughenour today ordered the Snohomish County PUD to pay $1.8 million to a former customer service representative after it wrongfully terminated her for perceived side effects from prescription medications for her chronic migraine headaches. 

Coughenour said the PUD failed to accommodate Cynthia Stewart’s disability, and discriminated against her because of it, writing the PUD should have: “treated her as an employee with a medical condition, rather than a drug abuser.”   The damages award included compensation for lost wages, lost pension, and emotional distress.   The judge later awarded nearly $1.2 Million in attorney’s fees, court costs, and an offset for adverse tax consequences.

Despite Judge Coughenour’s strongly worded order, the PUD filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  In October 2019, the Court of Appeals summarily rejected each of the PUD’s arguments, putting the PUD on the hook for the entire amount awarded by Judge Coughenour, plus interest that accrued during the lengthy appeal.

Ms. Stewart suffered debilitating migraine headaches the entire 23 years she worked as a customer services representative 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.

“This is a victory for all Washington employees who suffer from a disability.  People should be able to seek appropriate medical treatment without fear of losing their jobs,” said Joe Shaeffer, one of Ms. Stewart’s attorneys. 

Ms. Stewart was represented by Joe Shaeffer, Katie Chamberlain, and Sam Kramer of MacDonald Hoague & Bayless.

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