A deaf former employee of Costco in Pompano Beach, Fla., won’t get the $775,000 she won from a federal court jury in her suit alleging discrimination and wrongful termination.
Christine D’Onofrio’s celebration of the verdict and award in June 2018 was short-lived. Shortly afterward, a judge overturned the verdict, and then an appellate court declined to reinstate it. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court released a decision declining to reconsider.
In her trial, a jury in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., agreed with D’Onofrio’s claim that Costco failed to provide her with a reasonable accommodation as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Supervisors declined the Deerfield Beach, Fla., resident’s requests to have an interpreter or to have communications written down for her, she had argued. Instead she was given a video phone that worked well in meetings but served little purpose while she did her regular work.
Managers began to complain that D’Onofrio yelled too loudly into the video phone and could not control the sound of her voice, her suit stated. After she was written up for being too loud, D’Onofrio sent a letter to Costco’s CEO complaining about the treatment.
Shortly after, she was suspended for a week, and eight days after learning of the suspension in October 2013, she was terminated.
D’Onofrio had worked for Costco for 24 years at the company’s locations in Davie and Pompano Beach. She said she’d had no problems communicating with managers over the years until one arrived who mumbled, making it impossible for her to read his lips.
While the jury sided with D’Onofrio’s argument that Costco did not provide a reasonable accommodation, it rejected her claim that Costco terminated her because of her disability and in retaliation for her complaints.
Still, it awarded her $750,000 for mental anguish and $25,000 in punitive damages.
Seven months later, U.S. District Judge William Zloch overturned the verdict, finding that “no reasonable jury could have found in favor of (the) plaintiff.” Zloch found that D’Onofrio rejected the video phone and online interpretation services provided by Costco.
Appealing Zloch’s decision, D’Onofrio argued that the phone and online services were not sufficient to overcome communication problems that arose during the woman’s final year at Costco. The supervisor who mumbled had missed on-site training for communicating with deaf workers and repeatedly disciplined D’Onofrio for exhibiting behaviors — loud talking and strong gesturing — typical of how deaf people communicate, she argued.
But Costco argued that it went beyond its legal responsibilities in providing interpretive services and equipment to D’Onofrio, and provided training sessions to help her fellow employees communicate with her.
In January 2019, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in a 2-1 decision found that Costco provided reasonable accommodation to D’Onofrio and declined to overturn Zloch’s ruling.
D’Onofrio’s petition to the Supreme Court asked it to consider whether the appellate court failed to apply the correct standard of review and whether its verdict was legally sufficient under the correct standard.
D’Onofrio’s attorney, Miami Beach-based William J. Butler, said he had no insight into the Supreme Court’s decision not to consider the appeal.
“There’s not much to say,” Butler said. “It’s just a mere denial of an application for the court to take the case. Lawyers generally don’t know the reason. We could think about it forever and never figure out the reason.”