EEOC Sues Papa John’s For Firing Down Syndrome Employee After Refusing Reasonable Accommodation of Job Coach

On September 25, 2014, the EEOC initiated a lawsuit against the “integrated enterprise” of three companies that own several hundred Papa John’s pizza restaurants. The Commission brings this action in the U.S. District Court of Utah on behalf of Scott Bonn, a Papa John’s employee with Down Syndrome. They allege that Bonn was denied reasonable accommodation and ultimately terminated because of his intellectual disability, although he “was and remains capable of performing the essential functions of that job with reasonable accommodations.”

Plaintiffs allege that in early 2012, Brent Dunham, one of the Defendants’ operating partners, visited one their restaurants, where he saw Mr. Bonn folding boxes with his job coach standing beside him. When he was informed that Bonn was employed by Defendants and had requested the reasonable accommodation of a job coach, Mr. Dunham contacted the Defendants’ (shared) human resources department and recommended that they terminate Bonn. On February 10, 2012 they did so, thereby allegedly violating several relevant sections of the ADA by (a) denying and interfering with Scott Bonn’s employment opportunities based on his need for reasonable accommodation; (b) terminating Scott Bonn’s employment because of his disability and/or because of his need for reasonable accommodation; and (c) terminating Scott Bonn in retaliation for his requests for reasonable accommodation.

Statements by EEOC attorneys make clear that this case is part of a larger agenda of requiring employers to accommodate the intellectual disabilities of capable workers. EEOC Regional Attorney Mary Jo O’Neill states: “Many disabled persons are qualified, ready and willing to work. All they need is an equal opportunity. Job coaches are one form of reasonable accommodation that allows employees with intellectual disabilities to be able to work.” Rayford O. Irvin, District Director of the EEOC’s Phoenix District Office, adds: “Employers who terminate people because of their disability or because they requested a reasonable accommodation are violating federal law. We will continue to vigorously pursue our mission of fighting employment discrimination on all fronts.”

Employers are rarely obligated by law to hire intellectually disabled people. Disabilities such as down syndrome or autism spectrum disorders often give prospective employers a convenient explanation for their decision to hire a different candidate. Perhaps it is cheaper and easier for companies not to bother trying to accommodate workers who are often noticeably disabled, and limited in the tasks they can perform. One has to worry that a case like the present one carries some risk, if employers decide that hiring intellectually disabled people increases their exposure to lawsuits. To some extent we must hope that employers will share the larger goal of making opportunities for employment available to disabled people.

The EEOC requests that the defendants be ordered to change their policies and compensate Mr. Bonn for the loss of his job, to offer him reinstatement, and to compensate him resulting emotional and psychological injuries.

If you believe your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act have been violated, please contact The Harman Firm, LLP.