How a Walmart worker with Down syndrome — and her sister — fought and beat the giant retailer after getting fired
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.
Historic jury award
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.
‘A Marlo Spaeth memo’
“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 evaluation.”
Jasmine Harris, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who specializes in anti-discrimination law, said retailers often put employees with disabilities at the front of the store. They feature them in marketing materials and social responsibility reports.
With the verdict, however, Harris said jurors sent a clear message to those employers: Spaeth — and so many others with disabilities — are not charity cases or props, but qualified job candidates and contributing employees.
Employed, then fired
Spaeth began working in 1999 as a sales associate at the Walmart Supercenter in Manitowoc, a small city in eastern Wisconsin on the shore of Lake Michigan.
Four days a week, for nearly 16 years, Spaeth took the bus to the store where she tidied up aisles, folded towels, processed returns and doted on customers.
Spaeth’s work shift for the vast majority of her tenure at Walmart ran from noon to 4 p.m. When she was done for the day, she took the bus back home, in time for an early dinner.
But in November 2014, Spaeth’s hours changed when the Walmart store began using a computerized scheduling system designed to match staffing levels with customer traffic, according to court records.
Spaeth’s schedule was switched to 1 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., according to the lawsuit.
Spaeth struggled to adapt to the change. Stevenson said in court documents and interviews that Spaeth felt sick, overheated and stressed out from the disrupted schedule.
Dr. David Smith, founder of the Down Syndrome Clinic of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, testified in the court case that Spaeth’s response mirrored the challenges of many people with Down syndrome, who have difficulty with changes in daily routines and other transitions.
Spaeth and her sister repeatedly asked supervisors to restore her old schedule. But Walmart refused, according to the lawsuit.
Spaeth left the store earlier on certain days, worried that she would miss the bus or her dinner at home.
Walmart began counting those days as “incomplete shifts,” which were booked as an absence, instead of manager-approved early departures as they had been in the past, according to court records.
Eventually, the store took disciplinary action against Spaeth, firing her in July 2015 for excessive absenteeism.
Even after her sister was terminated, Stevenson said she thought the situation could be fixed.
She scheduled a meeting with store supervisors, bringing a printout of ADA requirements and a copy of Spaeth’s termination paperwork, which had a box checked saying she was rehireable.
EEOC takes the case
When Walmart managers said no again, Stevenson filed a complaint with the EEOC, and later got a letter, saying the agency would take the case.
In their suit, EEOC lawyers said that under the ADA, if Walmart changed Spaeth’s hours back it would be a reasonable accommodation for her disability, and would not pose a burden on Walmart or the store where she worked. That store is open 24 hours a day and has more than 300 employees.
EEOC attorneys noted that in depositions, Walmart supervisors had said other sales associates would be happy to take the extra hours that would open up if Spaeth was given her old schedule.
They also noted by giving the hours to a less-experienced associate, Walmart could actually save money. Due to her tenure at the store, Spaeth’s wages had risen to $12.50 per hour, more than what an entry-level worker would be paid.
But Walmart attorneys argued Spaeth was not a qualified individual with a disability because she was unable to come to work or stay at work on a reliable basis.
Walmart and Stevenson clashed over additional psychological exams, after Spaeth was distressed by a previous session.
A Walmart attorney asked Stevenson what she would do if she had to choose between having her sister examined further or having the case tossed.
Stevenson ultimately decided to allow two more hours of exams of her sister.
“They were making it as difficult as possible to maintain the case,” Stevenson said. “And it was just mean. It was mean.”
Marlo Spaeth (left) “receded into a shell” when she got fired from her job at Walmart, her sister Amy Jo Stevenson said. She wouldn’t come to the phone or have her picture taken.
Source: Amy Jo Stevenson
‘She was crying and I was crying’
Stevenson said money cannot repair the damage from Walmart’s actions, and can’t return the sense of identity stripped away from her sister.
“She wore the job title with honor,” Stevenson said. “I believe in her mind, the store just wouldn’t operate without her.”
In performance reviews, included in the lawsuit’s case file, Walmart supervisors noted Spaeth’s dedication to the job, too. They gave her positive marks and pay raises.
On the day Spaeth was fired, a Walmart training coordinator named Debbie Moss escorted her out of the store, and later told EEOC lawyers that she herself began crying as Spaeth hesitated about surrendering her Walmart employee vest.
“She said she didn’t understand, and she was crying and I was crying,” Moss said in a deposition.
“And I gave her a hug. And I said ‘I know.'”
— CNBC reporter Dan Mangan contributed to this report.