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Postal Service settles bias suit

The agency agrees to pay $61 million in a disability discrimination case filed by workers.

June 12, 2007|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

More than 7,000 postal workers will be notified within the next two weeks that the U.S. Postal Service has agreed to pay $61 million in what lawyers say is the country's largest disability discrimination class-action settlement.

The settlement reached late last month, if approved by a judge, could break new ground under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, which require employers to make "reasonable accommodations" for disabled employees.

"It is now clear that just as in race discrimination cases, disability discrimination can be extremely expensive for employers," said Brad Seligman, the Berkeley lawyer who negotiated the settlement.

The plaintiffs claim that the postal service -- the second-largest employer in the U.S. after Wal-Mart Stores Inc. -- routinely moved workers injured on the job to menial positions that gave them no chance of advancement.

The case started when postal employee Chandler Glover, who said the high-pitched noise of the mail sorting machinery he operated in Denver caused him pain and hearing loss, filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint.

When he returned to work in 1992 after a leave for medical treatment, he applied for a promotion in the same unit, saying the machine noise wasn't a problem when he wore earplugs, according to the complaint. But the agency reclassified him as a janitor, a position he held until his retirement in 2001.

"It was the closest thing you had to a dead-end job," said John Mosby, Glover's lawyer.

More than 25,000 postal service employees were similarly warehoused in "rehab positions," Seligman said, though most didn't choose to participate in the class action.

Some of these employees suffered permanent and severe back pain or the loss of a limb, injuries that qualify as disabilities under federal law. Glover's complaint claimed the agency repositioned workers with less-severe injuries as well.

As part of an earlier agreement reached in the Glover case, this one in 2004, the postal service changed its policies to make clear that all employees were eligible for promotion, and it began tracking bias complaints and monitoring compliance.

In the financial settlement agreement, the postal service said it would make payments to the 7,500 class members mostly in the range of $5,000 to $10,000 each, Seligman said, with some settlements of $30,000 and up.

Final approval could come by the fall.

Mary Anne Gibbons, general counsel for the postal service, issued a statement calling the agreement "a fair settlement for all concerned."

Christopher Cameron, who teaches employment law at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said the agency was "a victim of it's own goodwill: They rehired the folks but they didn't properly accommodate them."

If there's a message in the settlement, Cameron said, "for most employers in the long run it will be cheaper to provide reasonable accommodation than to defend this type of litigation."

Still, the law isn't clear on just what constitutes accommodation, said Deborah Saxe, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents employers. An employee might say, "I want the $500 speaker phone because I can't hear well," she said, "but maybe the $100 speaker phone works fine to accommodate the problem."

The postal service currently employs 796,200 workers.

molly.selvin@latimes.com

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