Marlo Spaeth (left) was fired from Walmart in July 2015, after working there for nearly 16 years. Her sister, Amy Jo Stevenson, has been in a legal battle with the retail giant since then. She filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Amy Jo Stevenson
Marlo Spaeth lived for — and loved — her job at a Walmart in Wisconsin.
Then, after nearly 16 years of working there, Walmart abruptly fired her in 2015. Spaeth, who has Down syndrome, was devastated.
Her sister and legal guardian, Amy Jo Stevenson, said that Spaeth quickly “receded into a shell” and lost the sense of purpose she got from the job at the Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, where she had thrived on interacting with customers and had received praise from supervisors in performance reviews.
Spaeth, 55, stopped coming to the phone, and would cover her face when someone wanted to take her photo. And when a Walmart commercial came on TV, or when a company truck drove by, she buried her head in her hands.
“Why me? Why did they do this to me?” Spaeth repeatedly asked her sister.
“It was nothing short of traumatic,” Stevenson said in an interview with CNBC. “It was hard, very difficult to watch.”
For the past six years, Stevenson — and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — have been locked in a legal battle on Spaeth’s behalf with Walmart.
A jury in a federal court in Green Bay, Wisconsin, last week took just three hours of deliberations to find Walmart had violated federal law in its treatment of Spaeth. Jurors found the company discriminated against Spaeth when it refused to accommodate her disability by reverting her recently adjusted work hours back to a shift she had performed well at for more than 15 years.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for workers and customers.
The jury ordered the retail giant to pay more than $125 million in damages — one of the highest in the federal agency’s history for a single victim.
Those damages were reduced by the judge to $300,000, the maximum allowed under the law.
Walmart still faces the possibility of being ordered to pay additional fees, and Spaeth’s lost wages and interest. The retailer also could be compelled by the judge to make changes at the company as a result of the verdict.
Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer, with more than 2.3 million workers worldwide. The company in 2020 booked revenue of nearly $560 billion. Three heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton — Alice Walton, Jim Walton and Rob Walton — were, respectively, numbers 10, 11 and 12 on the Forbes “Richest Americans” list, with each of them having fortunes valued at about $62 billion apiece.
Walmart has not said whether it will appeal the verdict in Spaeth’s case, but said it is reviewing its options. “We take supporting all our associates seriously and for those with disabilities, we routinely accommodate thousands every year,” company spokesman Randy Hargrove said in a statement.
“We tried for more than a year to resolve this matter with the EEOC to avoid litigation, however the EEOC’s demands were unreasonable,” he said.
Stevenson, however, said Walmart has not shown remorse or taken steps that could prevent another employee from facing similar discrimination.
She knows what changes she’d like to see at the Manitowoc store, and at every other Walmart around the country. She wants every one of Walmart’s employees and managers informed of their rights and requirements under the ADA, with her sister’s own case as an example.
“I envision a Marlo Spaeth memo hanging in every Walmart that says, ‘You can’t do this,'” Stevenson said.
Whether Stevenson gets that wish for a Marlo Spaeth memo remains to be seen.
The EEOC said it plans to seek nonmonetary remedies, according to Justin Mulaire, an attorney for the federal agency who spoke with CNBC. He declined to identify those remedies.
Remedies in past cases have included asking the court to order the reinstatement of an unlawfully terminated employee, and requiring mandatory, nationwide training for managers or employees.
Hargrove said Walmart has not changed its corporate policies, but said leaders “continually review, revise or enhance based on changes in the law.” He declined to comment on whether Walmart will offer Spaeth’s job back, saying the case is still active.
The lawsuit has led to a series of difficult moments for Spaeth and Stevenson.
Stevenson and Spaeth endured hours of questions from Walmart’s attorneys during the fight, which began when the EEOC found that the women’s claims had merit, and sued Walmart.
They grieved the death of their mother, Sandra Barnes, who had helped Spaeth first apply for the Walmart job and who was a champion for those with developmental disabilities.
And Walmart forced Spaeth to go through hours of psychological exams, which left her despondent and sobbing inconsolably in the passenger seat of a car.
In a statement, Hargrove said assessments conducted by both sides “are a common part of litigation to address allegations like those raised in this case, and we tried to be respectful of Ms. Spaeth during her…