Jury Awards $8 Million to Blind Service Center Worker

May 9, 2005 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - A federal jury in Denver awarded more than $8 million in a case brought by a 36-year-old blind man after finding EchoStar Communications refused to hire him solely because of that disability.

EchoStar said it plans to file an appeal, even though the seven-figure award is almost entirely symbolic. A federal cap on civil rights damages means that Alton stands to gain no more than $300,000 plus $7,000 in lost wages, according to the Rocky Mountain News. He sought $100,000 in compensatory damages, plus a court order requiring EchoStar to initiate anti-discrimination reforms that would welcome blind workers to join the company’s 7,500 customer-service workforce.

According to the Rocky Mountain News report, jury foreman Doug Auger said the evidence against the Douglas County satellite-TV company was so damning that some jurors wanted to award plaintiff Dale Alton as much as $30 million. Alton’s 1999 lawsuit was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

Counter Claims

EchoStar claimed that it fired Alton as a customer representative because he was “too slow” in completing a Braille proficiency test. They also maintained the company’s computers aren’t designed for “text to speech” software that would allow blind workers to answer and research customer questions and issues, according to the Rocky Mountain News.

However, during the trial a computer software consultant testified the adaptive software technology has been used successfully for years by call center operations for MCI, American Express, Diners Club, and Pizza Hut. Alton had already completed a six-month customer service course at the Colorado Center for the Blind when he was first turned down for an EchoStar position in February 1999. He was called back to take a customer service skills test in Braille format that summer after he filed a complaint with the EEOC.

At trial, Alton’s attorneys said the Braille test had twice as many questions as the standard test, and that reading Braille wasn’t a needed skill for a call center operator.

EEOC attorney Anjuli Kelotra said Alton now works for the Internal Revenue Service – as a customer service representative.