James Soliday was hired by 7-Eleven in 1982 as a Career Development Trainee. Soliday has a progressive hearing impairment and is unable to communicate over the telephone except though a Telecommunication Relay Service in which a relay operator types the spoken words and they appear on a monitor for Soliday to read.
In February of 1983, Soliday was promoted to Field Consultant responsible for supervising stores in Dayton, Springfield, and Columbus, Ohio and the surrounding areas. In December of 1986, Soliday transferred to Florida. After an acclimation period, he began supervising eight to nine stores in the Naples and Ft. Myers area from June of 1987 until his termination in 2008.
As a necessary part of Soliday’s job, he was required to communicate and transfer data between stores and with other Field Consultants, which was commonly communicated via telephone. Soliday requested a fax machine “in or around 1987” as a reasonable accommodation to allow him to effectively perform his duties. The request was granted, and the use of fax machines became “common practice” in most of the 7-Eleven stores in the Florida Division. In 1999, Soliday also requested the use of text pagers as a reasonable accommodation to assist with data transfers and communication with store managers under his supervision. This request was also granted, and the practice was also adopted storewide.
In March 2008, 7-Eleven replaced Soliday’s supervisor with a new Market Manager, Terry Hutchinson. Hutchinson denied Soliday’s request that worn and broken fax machines be replaced as a reasonable accommodation and informed him in July 2008 that no more fax machines would be replaced. Around May of 2008, Hutchinson eliminated the use of text pagers in the stores in which Soliday worked. 7-Eleven denied Soliday’s request for continued use of text pagers as a reasonable accommodation. Hutchinson also began conducting frequent conference call meetings without giving Soliday the requisite notice to participate using a relay service. Since Soliday’s job required travel to various stores, last minute phone conferences disrupted his schedule. While other Field Consultants were able to participate in teleconference calls on the spot, he was forced to divert to a store where he knew that a manager or Field Consultant could relay the content of the call.
On August 18, 2008, Soliday was discharged from his employment, allegedly due to a failure to perform his job duties and under a company policy that immediate termination is warranted if there are three violations in a twelve month period or gross misconduct. Neither applied to Soliday.
Soliday filed an action against 7-Eleven for unlawful employment practices including discrimination and discharge in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), and the Florida Civil Rights Act (FCRA). He alleged Disparate Treatment, Disparate Impact, and Failure to Accommodate under the ADA and FCRA, and Age Discrimination under the ADEA and FCRA. The plaintiff sought several remedies, including punitive damages. Punitive damages are designed to deter the defendant and future defendants from engaging in conduct similar to that which formed the basis of the lawsuit. Often punitive damages are awarded where severe misconduct has occurred, and where compensatory damages (damages that make the plaintiff whole) are inadequate.
For the purposes of determining the amount of punitive damages and other damages he could be entitled to, Soliday filed a motion on September 10, 2010 to compel 7-Eleven to submit five years of tax returns in order to determine the company’s financial worth. The magistrate judge denied this motion, and the case went to the District Court for review.
If the plaintiff is seeking punitive damages in an ADA Title I case (and under the FCRA), is it proper for a court to deny a plaintiff’s request that would compel the defendant to submit five years of tax returns in order to determine the defendant’s financial worth?
The District Court noted that the question of whether a Florida Statute applies to discovery of financial worth in federal court is as yet unanswered. Since the question has not been decided by a higher court, the Court in this case is not bound by precedent, and since no statute bars the motion, the Court looked next to the statute under which Soliday asserted his punitive damage claims.
Under the ADA, punitive damages are decided according to 42 U.S.C. §1981a, which addresses damages in cases of intentional civil rights employment discrimination. According to this section, a plaintiff asserting a violation of the ADA for intentional discrimination may be entitled to punitive damages if he or she can show that the defendant engaged in discriminatory conduct “with malice or reckless indifference to the federally protected rights of an aggrieved individual.” Relying on the Supreme Court’s 1999 decision in Kolstad v. American Dental Association, in order for punitive damages to be awarded, the employer must have discriminated “in the face of a perceived risk that its actions will violate federal law….”
The District Court reasoned that the defendant’s financial worth may be reasonably calculated to support Soliday’s punitive damages claim. It acknowledged that its sister District Court in the Southern District of Florida has held that in employment discrimination suits, discovery of net worth was permitted. In so reasoning, the Court decided that the request for the defendant’s past five years of tax returns was reasonable.
The Court in Soliday v. 7-Eleven sets precedent that a plaintiff who seeks punitive damages in an ADA Title I case can compel a defendant to submit tax returns to determine the defendant’s net worth. As this was a District Court decision, this case controls only this specific District and thus makes a limited policy statement. Within this jurisdiction, a plaintiff may request evidence of a defendant’s financial net worth, including five years of tax returns, during the discovery process. If the present decision is appealed and an Appellate Court rules on the same question, the policy implications will be broader.