Port Angeles woman wins suit against Walmart

A federal jury has awarded $744,620 in damages to a former pharmacist at the Port Angeles and Sequim Walmart stores who could not administer immunizations because of a disability.

Lori Jacobs, 63, said she suffers from cerebral palsy and multiple sclerosis and lacks the fine motor skills to provide flu shots and other vaccinations to customers.

She alleged that Walmart failed to accommodate her disability before placing her on unpaid leave in April 2017.

“I want to make sure that big stores like Walmart do not eliminate disabled employees from its workforce,” Jacobs said in an interview last week. “We do not choose to be disabled. We still want to be active workers in our community.”

Jacobs was awarded Wednesday $221,566 for past wages, $223,054 for future wages and $650,000 for pain, suffering and other damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Federal law caps emotional distress damages at $300,000, resulting in a total judgment of $744,620.

“We’re pleased that the jury recognized the value that disabled employees can bring to the workforce, and recognized that even if a single pharmacist needs accommodation that it’s incumbent on that employer to help provide that to them,” said James Beck of Gordon Thomas Honeywell LLP, one of Jacobs’ attorneys.

Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove disagreed.

“We don’t believe the jury’s verdict is supported by the evidence or legal precedent,” he said last week. “We respect Ms. Jacobs, and we have thousands of associates who perform their jobs with reasonable accommodations. We attempted to accommodate Ms. Jacobs. However, the alternatives she requested were not reasonable.”

The jury found that Walmart violated the Americans with Disabilities Act but had not violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination as Jacobs alleged in her 2017 lawsuit.

The eight-day trial was held in U.S. District Court Western District of Washington at Tacoma.

Jacobs, a Port Angeles resident and volunteer, had been a pharmacist at the Port Angles and Sequim Walmarts since 2007.

Prior to 2017, Jacobs would refer immunization customers to another pharmacist or ask customers to return to the pharmacy when it was double staffed, federal court papers said.

Walmart notified its 16,270 pharmacists in April 2016 that administering immunizations would become an “essential job function” in April 2017, according to the complaint.

Jacobs, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth and has suffered from multiple sclerosis since 1978, sought a permanent exemption from the vaccination requirement in January 2017.

“I really enjoy my job, but I am not able to control my hands to feel comfortable immunizing the general public,” Jacobs wrote in her request for an exemption, which included a doctor’s note supporting her claim.

As a goodwill gesture, Walmart offered to reassign Jacobs but she could not find a non-immunizing, part-time, non-management day position that did not require her to move, company attorneys said in a court filing.

Jacobs asked her employer if she could use injector pens in lieu of needles and syringes.

“Since my only issue involves dexterity necessary to hold a syringe, place the needle and simultaneously inject a vaccine, I believe a reasonable accommodation is to have Wal-Mart allow me to use an injector pen, which I can do,” Jacobs wrote in an email to the company’s regional health and wellness director.

Walmart officials said they would not allow Jacobs to use injector pens because they are “not compatible with the immunizations that are provided in the pharmacy,” court papers said.

“Providing immunizations is an essential job function for pharmacists at Walmart and at leading pharmacy chains across the country,” Hargrove said in a telephone interview.

“It’s a vital service that local communities depend on.”

Hargrove said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York ruled in a 2016 that immunizations are an “essential job function” for pharmacists.

“We’re looking at our options, including an appeal,” Hargrove said.

Jacobs was informed that she would lose her job because of her inability to provide immunizations on Feb. 6, 2017, court papers said.

She was placed on unpaid leave on April 15, 2017, Beck said.

“I’ve been a pharmacist for 40 years,” Jacobs said. “I was pretty devastated when they told me my position was terminated.”

Jacobs said she is not seeking another job at a pharmacy.

She volunteers at the Port Angeles Visitor Center, Port Angeles Food Bank, Volunteer Hospice of Clallam County and Franklin Elementary School.

Rob Ollikainen is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. He can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsuladailynews.com.

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